In American circles, I often hear salvation spoken about in an individual way. “I’m saved.” “Jesus is my personal savior.” But the Bible casts a much bigger picture. We’re actually meant to be a part of something bigger than ourselves.
I once asked some cradle Orthodox Christians – those who’ve grown up in the Orthodox Church – how would you respond to this question, “Are you saved?”
This is a common question among many American Protestants. In fact, it’s a question I wrestled with growing up as a United Methodist. And, believe it or not, a local Baptist church didn’t believe my Methodist friend was “saved” and once tried to convert him to the Baptist tradition.
The response I got from these Orthodox Christians was one of confusion. They weren’t quite sure what was meant by the question.
This is because Orthodox Christianity, drawing inspiration from Scripture, often speaks of the “Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ.” In other words, Christ’s suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension have cosmic consequences. It isn’t just about “me” and “my salvation.”
David Bentley Hart, an Orthodox theologian and thinker, summed it up very well. Responding to, and trying to correct, a Thomist (which he calls “the System”) theologian named Feser, Hart wrote,
Had Feser been fortunate enough to be catechized into Orthodoxy rather than The System, he would surely have been told that salvation is cosmic in scope and includes all creation; that the promised Kingdom of God will be nothing but this world restored and transfigured by the glory of God, in its every dimension, vegetal, animal, rational, and social; and that a deified humanity will serve therein as a cosmic priesthood, receiving that glory from Christ and mediating it to the natural world. He would also undoubtedly have encountered the now quite standard eschatological motif of the redeemed cosmos as the burning bush: pervaded by the divine glory, but unconsumed—an infinitely realized theophany. (Source)
Orthodox Christians often speak of salvation as “theosis,” which is often translated as “deification.” This is precisely the “transfiguration” that Hart speaks of.
Biblically speaking, this is the vision of St. John in his Apocalypse, also commonly referred to as Revelation. It’s an image of heaven and earth uniting, our fallen world being transfigured so that a new Jerusalem can descend from above. It’s the glory of God dwelling among us. It’s a vision of the Father’s will being done “on earth as it is in heaven.”
Many Orthodox thinkers have picked up on this vision of the Ages. St. Maximus the Confessor and St. Symeon the New Theologian both articulate Orthodox thoughts on this very well.
Amazingly, even modern theologians are starting to see the Biblical promise in this way. One popular theologian, N.T. Wright, has written a lot about a cosmic salvation. Here’s an interview Wright gave,
Most Western Christians have been taught that Jesus died so that they could escape the results of sin and go to heaven after they die. The New Testament, however, regularly speaks of Jesus’ death as the defeat of the powers of evil that have kept the world in captivity, with the implication that the world is actually going to change as a result—through the life and work and witness of those who believe this good news. Think of Revelation 5:9–10. Humans are rescued from their sin so that they can be “a kingdom and priests serving our God, and they will reign on earth.” That began at Easter and, in the power of the Spirit, has continued ever since. Of course, the “reign” of Jesus’ people, like that of Jesus himself, is the reign of suffering love . . . but that’s a whole other story. Suffice it to say that the vocation of God’s people today is to continue to implement that revolution.
The human problem isn’t just that God set us a moral exam and we all flunked it. It is that God gave humans a vocation: to reflect his image, to be (again, as in Revelation) a kingdom and priests, summing up the praises of creation and reflecting the creator’s wise rule into the world. Human rebellion and idolatry, then, doesn’t just mean that we are in trouble (though we are); it means that God’s larger purposes for creation are not going ahead as intended. So the long story of God’s plan to put things right, starting with Abraham, climaxing in Jesus and the Spirit, and looking ahead to the new heavens and new earth, isn’t the story of guilty humans being forgiven so they could go to heaven, but of idolatrous (and yes, therefore guilty) humans being rescued in order to be worshippers and workers in God’s restoration movement, God’s kingdom-project. The problem comes in three stages: 1) We have swapped our biblical heritage of new heavens and new earth for a form of Platonism (“going to heaven”—which you find in the first century in Plutarch, not in Paul!); 2) we have swapped the biblical vocation of humans (to be “a kingdom and priests”) for a moral contract in which the most important thing is whether or not we’ve passed the moral exam, and if we haven’t what can be done about it; and 3) we have therefore swapped the rich biblical account of what Jesus’ death achieved for a slimmed-down version which can easily be heard to say that an angry God took out his bad temper on his own Son . . . which is the sort of thing a pagan religion might say. So, as I say in the book, we have platonized our eschatology, as a result of which we have moralized our anthropology, and have therefore been in danger of paganizing our soteriology. Fortunately, the Bible itself will help us get back on track. (Source)
I’ve often wondered why N.T. Wright hasn’t become an Orthodox Christian yet, but that’s neither here nor there.
This vision of salvation, a much more Biblical vision, inspires me to live a new sort of way. If, indeed, I’m meant to be a part of a new transfigured world, I’m called to start living as a citizen of that world now. That, I believe, is the Christian hope and faith of this world.
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