Is salvation a universal experience? Now, before anyone jumps to conclusions and accuses me of some form of heresy, let me be clear. I’m not talking about universalism here – the idea that everyone will be saved, regardless of their beliefs. What I am asking is whether the “experience” of salvation is the same for everyone. Is it universal?
The word salvation is itself a bit problematic. Saved from what, exactly? Saved to what, exactly? In one sense, we might say that salvation is the primary theme and focus of the Bible. However, it is such a multifaceted term that simple definitions or explanations prove elusive. As William T. Arnold explains, “The biblical writers speak of salvation as a reality witch is at once spiritual and physical, individual and communal, objective and subjective, eternal and historical dimensions.” Salvation is closely linked to the Hebrew concept of shalom, a term that is much richer than the common translation of “peace.” Shalom encompasses a broader idea of harmony, wholeness, and the right ordering of creation. Surely, this describes the idea of salvation. But, is it universal?
I believe that the answer must be yes . . . and no. In one sense, salvation refers to the forgiveness of sins and communion with the Divine. It is the experience of transcendence – a connection to something beyond ourselves and beyond our world that gives meaning to life. From a Christian perspective, it involves a deliverance from the mistakes of our past and an empowering by God’s Spirit to live into a different, more abundant, and more glorious future. In one sense, it is about turning from a selfish, inward focus toward our neighbor in order to share the love and forgiveness we have experienced with others.
On the other hand, however, salvation can never be the same for all people – it is an incredibly individual experience. The Baptist theologian and ethicist, Miguel De La Torre, warns of the dangers of universalizing the salvation experience. “The danger occurs when religious leaders legitimize their own experiences of conversion, based solely on their own needs. Universalizing their salvation experience, by imposing upon the earth’s wretched a similar path that requires feelings and emotions similar to those of the earth’s exalted, is, to say the least, problematic.”
Jesus came to bring salvation to the world – that much is clear from scripture. His name alone means “the Lord saves.” Yet, if we are to understand Jesus correctly, we must remember that his original message was to an oppressed people – a people living under the thumb of the Roman Empire. His message was undeniably bent towards the poor and the outcast – the ones who lived on the margins of society, those denied seats in the halls of power. His message was “good news” to sinners and a stumbling block to the self-righteous.
The danger is that many in our world today – politicians, business people, religious professionals, churches, and even whole denominations – want to define salvation solely from the perspective of those in positions of power and privilege. Many want to co-opt Jesus’ radical message of equality, forgiveness, and love to reinforce their own stronghold on power and privilege. In so doing, Jesus becomes nothing more than a tool – a stage prop to gain credibility. In so doing, talk of salvation becomes little more than a self-serving farce of the goals and message of the Jesus we find in scripture.
To those of us who live, work, and mingle in the halls of power and privilege – who have never been denied a seat at the table because of our race, gender, or socio-economic status – the message of salvation may very well bring about a conversion of humility. To embody the Way of Jesus and to take our seat in the Kingdom of God will mean walking away from the false god of self-sufficiency. It will mean rejecting every attempt to manipulate God and others through our “good deeds” and standing before God on the merit of grace alone. True conversion will mean voluntarily rejecting the false pedestals on which we stand – pedestals that balance precariously on the bent backs of the oppressed, neglected, and forgotten.
Conversely, for those who have lived their life in need, in want, and on the margins, salvation comes in the form of affirmation and empowerment. To those whose voices have been silenced, salvation means the affirmation of our identity as true children of God. Salvation means a welcome at the table. Salvation means the ability to speak and be heard, to be valued and honored. To those who have lived in the shadows, salvation means taking one’s rightful place in the light of God’s love. Salvation means an affirmation of our belovedness in the eyes of God.
So, yes, Jesus came to announce God’s salvation. Yes, Jesus came to bring forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing. Yes, those experiences are universal. But he also said this about the Kingdom of God: “The first shall be last and the last shall be first.” It may very well be the case that the place where we begin our journey will determine the course we must travel. It may very well be the case that our journey will be unique. It may very well be the case that, when it comes to salvation, one size does not fit all.