University Congregational Church
Jan. 18, 2015
“Tough Theological Questions: What is Salvation, Being ‘Born Again’, and is there a Heaven?”
When I did a Google search by typing in “what does it mean to be saved?” I received 258 million responses. It’s a popular question! And when I typed in “What does it mean to be born again?” 84.2 million sites came up. You may be happy to know that I did not spend my week reading all of those sites.
There has been – as long as there have been humans – a desire for immortality. We know this of our ancestors who built the great pyramids of Egypt, the colossal cliff face portrait of King Darius, the immortal beauty of the Taj Mahal, and even the Forbidden City, an exquisite memorial to an entire dynasty. We all want to make a mark on the world, and it can become a desperate longing. Some would say that this longing is so ingrained in us that we create in our minds a life beyond this one.
In some theological circles, “salvation”, being “born again” and “heaven” are tied together – you believe so that you can avoid hell and get to heaven. In order to get to heaven, you need to be “saved” and/or “born again”. This heaven and hell framework is found at the very basis of many congregations today.
The problem most progressive Christians find with this popular theology is the focus on what happens after death. While an emphasis on the afterlife has been a popular Christian idea in this country for a long while, it is not so in the Bible. In fact, this fixation with salvation in modern western culture is a distortion of the original meaning of salvation. Today, to many people, that word means just going to heaven. But in the Bible, the word salvation hardly ever means that, according to scholars.
I’m not denying the afterlife or salvation. What I am saying is that there is an overemphasis on it as the sole purpose of Christianity. It ultimately leads to fear-based religion. In stark contrast is Jesus, who taught that salvation meant liberation from fear.
Here’s what the Hebrew Bible tells us about salvation:
- Salvation is liberation from bondage. This story comes straight out of the foundational Biblical story of the Exodus. The Hebrews were saved from the Egyptian oppression and slavery they were experiencing.
- Salvation is a safe return, reconnection, and homecoming. Another bedrock story of the Hebrew Bible is the time the Hebrews spent in exile. Exile took them away from home; away from family and friends; away from familiar custom and tradition; even took them away from God. Salvation came when they were returned to home.
- Salvation in the Bible is also explained as having one’s eyes opened. Jesus spoke of this and there are literal and symbolic stories of those who were saved by having their eyes opened.
- In Psalms, salvation is primarily about deliverance from our enemies; deliverance from serious illness, or from other threats.
- Marcus Borg
None of these Biblical traditions of salvation are focused on what happens once we die. Salvation is not about the afterlife, or connected with heaven or freedom from hell in most of the Bible.
In fact, claim progressive scholars, we need to reclaim the Biblical imperative to find salvation – or transformation – in this life rather than the afterlife. This is not to deny the afterlife, but to place the emphasis on living out our faith today. In the Bible, transformation of this life – of ourselves and of the world – is not only central but the primary meaning of salvation.
I would assert that if there is such a thing as salvation, it is a lifelong process. Too many people who identify as Christian see salvation as a one-time experience with a quick prayer and it is over. Instead, what if salvation comes as a lifelong journey of relating to the idea of God? In Philippians 2, Paul says, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling”. Salvation is not a one-shot deal but a lifelong process and journey.
So what is “being born again”? The words “born again” are meant to be a riddle. It’s actually a Greek pun in the Bible. The Greek word used here is anothen, which means both “reborn” and “born from above”. It is not a literal experience of being born a 2nd time or even having a prayer about being saved. The Greek pun actually leads us to a deep inner faith that is able to turn around a person’s very life, 360° turn around. Again, we end up at an imperative for living – not a trip to heaven. Being born again, according to the ancient language of the Bible, is about living and being in a new way. Being born again is a lifelong process.
Finally, we get to the topic of heaven. Heaven is commonly meant to be the place where we go when we die to be with God for eternity. But for ancient Jews or ancient Jesus-followers, that would have been impossible. They believed that only God could destroy the world and that, having created it and declared it to be all-good in Genesis 1, God would never annul that creation. (We, of course, can easily imagine the “end of the world” since we ourselves can now do it atomically, biologically, chemically, demographically, or ecologically-and we are only up to the letter E.)
What ancient people waited for with eager faith was an end not to earth or world, but to evil, violence, and oppression. What they expected was not a transfer from earth to heaven, but a transfer of heaven to earth.
For example, here is a Jewish vision of utopian social transformation from around the time of Jesus’ birth: “The earth will belong equally to all, undivided by walls or fences. It will then bear more abundant fruits spontaneously. Lives will be in common and wealth will have no division. For there will be no poor man there, no rich, and no tyrant, no slave. Further, no one will be either great or small anymore. No kings, no leaders. All will be on a par together” (Sibylline Oracles 2:319-24). These texts indicate a longing for God’s new creation of an ideal world, a perfect world to replace this imperfect one.
Jesus claimed that the Kingdom of God was not just imminent but already here, was not just coming soon but had already started. -John Dominic Crossan
Next, and most importantly, Jesus claimed that in this new understanding of God’s Kingdom, people were called to make it happen. They could enter the Kingdom here and now. They should take the Kingdom upon them. Remember, of course, that the coming of the Kingdom meant to do the will of God on earth, according to the Lord’s Prayer. “Your kingdom come; your will be done… on earth as in heaven.” Each time we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we are calling on ourselves to bring heaven into this life we are living.
Jesus told his companions to heal the sick, to eat with those they healed, and to announce that the Kingdom of God had arrived. Healing is the basic spiritual power. Eating is the basic physical power. That mutual sharing of spiritual and physical power brings heaven to us.
These are the concerns of heaven, say progressive scholars. Followers of Jesus are called to act in the ways of Jesus… and when we do, we are a part of the Kingdom of God – Heaven.
There you have it. Being saved, born again, and getting to heaven are not so much about what happens when we die. They are guides for a spiritual life today. They are the teachings of Jesus for us to put into action today. They are the call to think beyond our own lives and deaths and to think about others. By sharing what we have – we have the power to bring about heaven on earth!