Does salvation really mean going to heaven rather than hell after you die? A lot of Christians believe that. But one of the first things I noticed when I started reading scripture many years ago was that this notion is almost completely absent from the bible. As widely accepted as “salvation means being saved from hell” is, one would expect that there would be a verse – probably a lot of verses – that actually said that. But there’s not even one!
The strange thing about the use of the word salvation in scriptures is that it is used as if its meaning were understood. Like when we say “turn left” we know exactly what “turn left” means. But all that salvation really means is “saved”. From what? Over time, I’ve come to embrace the understanding of salvation that was most common among the ancient church fathers and which is still the teaching of Eastern Orthodox theology: theosis.
Before I get into exactly what theosis is, let’s go back to the beginning. What are we being saved from? Why do we need salvation to begin with? In the beginning, we were made in the image of God. It means being made in the likeness of God. Elsewhere in scripture the word “image” is used to describe a son being the image of his father or an idol shaped to look like something else. With the fall, that image becomes obscured. And that, I would argue, is what we are being saved from: the corrosive effects of sin – ours and others. (BTW, you should read this earlier Upside Down World discussion of original sin that probably makes more sense than other things you’ve been taught about it.)
The problem of sin as it is often explained is that it is evil and separates us from God. But dig a little deeper. The Hebrew word for sin comes from an archery term which means “to miss”. To miss what? God’s perfection. The image of God that we carry within us. The life we are meant to live and the person we are meant to be. Sin is a distortion that we take part in. It can be our own sin or the sin that another commits against us, but the end result is that we reflect something other than the image of God that we were created to be – it misses. And sin separates us from God as surely as it separates us from ourselves and each other. Because we’re looking and pointing in all the wrong directions.
In scripture sin is usually spoken of in terms of being unclean, dirty, filthy. Sin obscures that core of who we were created to be. But it can’t change it or take it away. Think of it like a diamond that gets left in a tide pool and becomes encrusted with mud, bits of shells, plant materials, maybe even eaten and crapped back out. The diamond is still there, unchanged. But it has been completely encrusted with filth until there is no remaining visible sign of it’s existence. There are many verses in scripture which speak of our sins being washed away. We are washed in the blood of Christ. And once those sins are washed away, what is revealed? Who we really are – images of the God who created us. This is what salvation is. Being redeemed from the effects of sin – our own and other’s – and restored to the very image of God.
This restoration to the “image of God” is the teaching of theosis. When this restoration of a person to who they were created to be occurs, there is no longer any impediment to union with God. That is salvation. Theosis is union with God. It is being saved, restored, redeemed. It means becoming the person we were created to be and the person each of us has been created to be is an image of God. (Here’s a discussion of theosis that I think it quite good. And here’s the wiki entry on it.)
Now, the reality is that as humans we will always have what we see as flaws. We don’t know everything. We make mistakes. We think dumb things. We do things with good intentions that turn out horribly. We fart and pick our noses and yawn while someone else is talking to us. And this is true of the greatest saint as much so as it is true of a drug addled gutter dweller. So, what does it mean to be restored to the image of God? If theosis were real, wouldn’t we expect to see at least some Christians who never slip up, never misjudge or make mistakes? Well, no. We think that because we misunderstand what perfection means in God’s world. In Matthew 5:48 Jesus tells us “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Well, how is our heavenly Father perfect? If we go back a couple of verses to Matthew 5:45 we find the answer: “God causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” God is perfect because his love is perfect. His love is perfect because it comes out of who he is. It is not a reaction to other people, other events, other circumstances.
God’s love comes from who he is – nothing more, nothing less. Jesus is telling us to be perfect like that; loving no matter whether the object of your love deserves it or not. In favorable or unfavorable circumstances, our love must remain the same. When our salvation is complete and the essence of who we have been created to be is revealed without the obscuring effects of sins (again – our own as well as other’s), we too will love because it is the essence of who we are. This is God’s perfection. Not having a great personality or always making excellent choices or having impeccable taste or always knowing the right things to say. Just that in all circumstances our behavior, attitude and choices would be motivated by love. When we can do that, we have truly been saved. As we allow God to work in us and learn to love as He loves, that is the “working out our salvation” that Paul refers to.
Which leads us to the final truth about theosis and salvation: it requires God. Only God knows just what He looks like. Only God knows just who he has created you to be. And only God can point you back in the right direction and clear away the muck and polish you until you truly do “shine like the stars in the heavens”. For all of our attempts to be better people or “find ourselves” or become enlightened, only God really knows the way. But salvation is an arduous task. There’s a lot to be cleared away. We tend to look everywhere by to God for directions. When God tries to take away the accumulated crud that we’ve all been stained with, we whine and cry and hang onto it as if it were a precious friend. For salvation to take place we need to allow God to do that work on us. We need that cleaning and polishing and emptying of everything else we carry. We need God to point us to the true mark – this way not that. Perhaps this is why so many people like the old version of salvation as a “get out of hellfires free” card. That’s easy. Salvation – real salvation – means being willing to walk through those hellfires on your way to purity. It means carrying your cross and selling everything you own and counting your suffering as joy. And that is hard. That takes God.
“For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” ~ Matthew 7:14