“Jesus is my personal savior.” You’ve heard the phrase before. And, of course, you know what people are trying to say: that God is near and cares about every person and will meet their needs. That’s great and all and certainly true in some regard, but still – something is seriously lacking.
I was sitting in church on Sunday thinking about the language used in the songs and in the prayers and it was all strikingly individualistic. Even the thanksgiving that was given to God corporately lacked any historical dimension (i.e., acknowledgement that God is not just the local god of our little community but the Creator and Lord of the Universe). This is, of course, not surprising since many North American Evangelical churches do not know the narrative of the Bible as anything more than the idea that Jesus came to save individual sinners from spiritual death in hell, which is not even the half of it.
The problem is not that Christians view God as their “personal savior” who loves each person individually, but that the the Gospel story is so much more. I truly believe that if Christians heard and embraced the story of both the Old and New Testaments and lived in light of this story, then pastors would not have to continually try to make the Christian life “relevant” to the world. As it is, with the simple “Jesus is my personal savior” message, all you have is a Gospel that may help someone live a better life morally (and perhaps give her comfort with the thought that she will go to “a better place” when she dies), but has little relevance to life as a human being.
Let me explain what I mean.
When Jesus enters the scene in the New Testament, the gospel writers portray him as the climax to the Story of Israel. This means that in order to understand what Jesus’ purpose is (both in the Narrative and in the history of the world), we have to go back to Israel’s story and view Act I. No man is an island. For our lives to have individual significance, our personal stories much be viewed in light of a grander narrative (which is one reason why the study of history is so important; how can we know who we are if we know not whence we’ve come?).
I have been slogging through NT Wright’s huge tome, The Resurrection of the Son of God (“slogging,” of course, meaning “wading slowly, delightfully, vigorously and taxingly”). In the section I am reading now, Tom is examining beliefs about death and the afterlife both in the Graeco-Roman world and in the history of the Jews (both in the OT and other Jewish religious texts).
Surprisingly, the Old Testament has very little to say about any sort of afterlife, either of a kind of “heaven” or bodily resurrection. There is some talk of Sheol (i.e., the place of the dead), but what it is like in Sheol is rather vague. There is no mention of hell at all and the concept of “heaven” in the OT (and, I would argue, even in the NT) is very different from what we in the evangelical church often think of today. “Heaven” in the OT is not an otherworldly resting place where good people (or “saved” people) go when they die. Rather, “the heavens” in the ancient Near East (ANE) were consider just as much a part of the universe as the earth. When the Hebrew God (YHWH) created the world, he created the “heavens and the earth.” To the ANE mind, the earth was the realm of humans and the heavens (or “skies”) was the realm of the gods (or, if you were a Hebrew monotheist, the realm of the one true God, YHWH). In other words, the heavens and the earth were not entirely separate modes of existence but two overlapping parts of the same sphere. The heavens were the dwelling place of God; a God who deigned to involve himself in the affairs of the humans he had created.
As I discussed in my last post, the Bible doesn’t teach that “heaven” (whatever your concept of it might be) is the final destination for those who have faith in Jesus. The NT speaks of a time when Jesus Christ will return in human, bodily form and the dead will be resurrected. Those who follow Jesus will rise to live in physical bodies on the earth which God will re-create and restore. The earth will not be ditched while we all fly away to heaven. Jesus will re-make the earth and establish the kingdom of heaven on it, ruling it justly.
It seems, however, that even the concept of the bodily resurrection of God’s people (as opposed to an eternity in a platonic heaven) is expressed much more concretely in the NT than in the OT. There are certainly glimmers of it and some more concrete images in some of the prophets like Daniel, Ezekiel and Hosea. But for the most part, it doesn’t look like the idea of bodily resurrection (at least, for the individual) is the driving hope of the OT. In Jewish literature during the Second Temple period (roughly the 6th century BCE to 70 CE), there is a good bit of talk about the idea of resurrection. (Although Tom warns his readers against thinking of ideas about resurrection developing in a linear fashion, as though steadily, the closer we get on the timeline to Jesus’ birth, the more developed ideas about resurrection are – ideas generally don’t develop like that.)
Wright says that in the Graeco-Roman world, belief in resurrection is a decidedly Jewish idea. (It is important to note, however, that belief in the resurrection and views about it varied considerably in different sects of Judaism. The Sadducees, for example, were a Jewish sect which did not believe in the resurrection at all. Still others in the Second Temple period believed that while the physical body decayed, the immortal soul was freed from its “prison” of the body. There were many different forms of Judaism in the Hellenistic period). Despite the varying beliefs within Judaism, the Jews were the only ones sporting the idea of resurrection. People didn’t ordinarily rise from the dead. They went to Hades or became ghosts or lived some kind of shadowy existence – nothing like life on earth. Bodily resurrection was precisely what did not happen.
What is Wright’s point in this section and how does this tie into the concept of individualism and people talking about a “personal” relationship with God? As Tom explores these concepts of death and the afterlife in the history of Judaism and in the ancient world, he argues that the OT Jewish hope was not that God would bring his faithful followers to heaven or even that he would raise them from the dead. Rather, their hope was that the Creator God who had entered into a covenant with Israel would be faithful to Israel as a nation. The individual would experience death, but the nation of Israel would live on and prosper and God would establish Israel as a nation in its own land.
(As a side note: If you’ve read the OT a few times, you may have picked up on the huge emphasis on “seed” or descendents. In the OT, it’s important to produce offspring because that’s the way your name is passed on from generation to generation. You will die, but your descendents will grant you a kind of “immortality” by carrying on your name. Interestingly enough, this reminds me of the conclusion to the Epic of Gilgamesh which is a Sumerian myth (with later Akkadian versions) about the legendary Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, and his quest for immorality. After seeking immortality and failing to gain it, Gilgamesh concludes that the gods have not ordained that humans should live forever. The best thing that he can do, therefore, is to enjoy life and settle down to do the things that humans do and produce offspring that will carry on his name. This is the only way the “cheat death.”)
Now, of course I am highly oversimplifying NT Wright’s detailed arguments (if you want to know all that he thinks about views of the afterlife in the OT and Graeco-Roman period, you’ll just have to read his book). But my point is this: if the OT hope of Israel was not so much individual resurrection/salvation as it was a national restoration to life in the good land, should we put such an emphasis on Jesus as our “personal savior”? This is not to say that the coming of Christ has not illuminated and made sure the resurrection of individual believers or that individuals cannot hope in a future resurrection and restoration. However, if we present the Gospel without the context of Israel’s story, we come up with a God whose salvation is merely to save the individual from his own personal “demon,” so to speak. Again, this is not to say that God does not give aid to the individual or forgive her own personal sin. However, if that’s all there is to it, we’ve turned the God of the universe into a local god who helps individuals who call on him but leaves the world to stew in its own juices.
People need to know that Jesus isn’t an optional spice that will make your life better and even improve you morally if you decide to try him out. In America today, religion is viewed as a personal thing: “If you believe that and it makes your life better, great! Great for you, but not for me.” But when it comes to Christianity, the message is not, “Try Jesus and see if he’s right for you.” No; the King is coming. The God who made the earth is coming to restore it and you must partner with him in the restoration process. He’s coming to fix the world. Are you on board?