Most Christians don’t feel like they need an answer to the question, “what is salvation?” For them, the answer is simple: getting to go to heaven instead of hell when they die. Yet, despite this being the common and majority view in modern western Evangelicalism, it isn’t true at all. Salvation never involves going to heaven, and it never involves avoiding hell after you die. This is a laughable claim for many, but throughout Scripture, salvation is never framed as going to heaven instead of hell after you die.
Many Christians have a slightly more nuanced understanding, and they center salvation around Jesus dying on the cross in their place. For them, salvation comes from saying a prayer that you believe that Jesus was crucified, thereby being forgiven of their sins so they can go to heaven and avoid hell when they die. This is mostly not true either.
Salvation is a topic that comes up all throughout the Bible, from the first book to the last. There is ample definition provided. You may be surprised to see how the Bible describes salvation versus a Sunday morning sermon. Its meaning is much more nuanced and applicable to our daily lives.
Old Testament Salvation
In early Jewish thought, heaven was a place solely for God and the heavenly hosts. Israel did not regard heaven as a place a human would ever inhabit. They believed the dead descended to the underworld or grave—a place called “sheol” in Hebrew (Genesis 37:35, 42:38; 1 Kings 13:31). The word “sheol” and “geber” (grave) are often used interchangeably. All people (good and bad) go to sheol when they die according to the Old Testament (Numbers 16:33). Most of the Old Testament expresses a dismal view of life after death. Job speaks of death as final (Job 10:21; 14:7-12; 16:22), as does Ecclesiastes (Ecclesiastes 9:5-6). Some psalms describe death as permanent silence (Psalms 6:5; 30:9; 88:3-5, 10-12) So when it comes to salvation, going to heaven is not an option that the Hebrew Scriptures have in view.
There are three main Hebrew words used to communicate salvation in the Old Testament. “Yasha'” means save, “yeshu’ah” means salvation, and “natsal” means rescue; all used mostly interchangeably. A few psalms seem to express hope about an afterlife (Psalms 16:10-11; 49:15; 73:24), but virtually all references to salvation in the Old Testament are about physical deliverance in life before death, not life after death.1 The word yasha’ and its cognates are used 136 times in Psalms; almost every instance refers to rescue from disease or danger. Since ancient Israelites didn’t believe in a conscious afterlife, every reference to salvation involves deliverance in the present life.
For example, Noah and his family are “saved” from the flood (1 Peter 3:20). Later in Genesis, Jacob prays for divine intervention, saying, “save [natsal] me, I pray, from the hand of my brother…” (Genesis 32:11). When Jacob blesses his sons, he says, “I wait for your salvation [yeshu’ah], Yahweh” (Genesis 49:18 NRSV). Throughout the Old Testament, salvation usually refers to physical protection: “Yahweh your God is the one who is going with you, to fight for you against your enemies, to save [yasha] you” (Deuteronomy 20:4 NASB). Most uses of yasha’ in the Old Testament refer to God’s help from foreign militaries. When people ask for salvation, they are speaking about rescue from physical dangers; they are not asking to be saved from their sins or saved after death.
Saved From Egypt
The Old Testament’s most important example of salvation is the exodus story. God provided salvation for the Hebrew people from their slavery to the empire of Egypt. With possibly the exception of the Jewish exile in Babylon, it can easily be said that the exodus out of Egypt is the most significant event of salvation in the Hebrew Scriptures. The narrative uses the main Hebrew roots for “to save” interchangeably: “I have come down to deliver [natsal] them out of the hand of the Egyptians” (Exodus 3:8 ESV); “the Lord saved [yasha’] Israel that day from the hand of the Egyptians” (Exodus 14:30 ESV). The exodus is mentioned all throughout the Old Testament to remind Israel of Yahweh’s power to save them (Judges 6:7-9; 1 Samuel 12:6-8; 1 Kings 8:16; 2 Chronicles 7:21-22; Nehemiah 9:9-15; Psalms 77:15, 78:12-13, 80:8-9, 105:37-38, 106:8-10, 136:13-15; Ezekiel 20:9-11; Daniel 9:15-16).
When the Jews are conquered by Babylon and thrown into exile, Jeremiah describes it as an “undoing” of the exodus, when they are enslaved rather than delivered (Jeremiah 7:21-34; 11:6-17; 34:12-22). He also envisioned a day when the exiles would experience a new exodus and be returned to the land (Jeremiah16:10-21). According to ancient Israelite theology, God blesses those who obey the law, so when Israel is defeated by their enemies, their reasonable conclusion is that they had been unfaithful to their covenant with God. In these times of defeat, they petition God for salvation by asking for forgiveness. A restored relationship with God (forgiveness) provided the basis for petitioning him to intervene (salvation). We can see this pattern prominently in the book of Judges and all the other historical narratives.
The Israelites’ laws and traditions presented a means for maintaining a relationship with God, but they never played a direct role in their idea of salvation. Instead, by following the Law of Moses, they could continue to be saved from threats like droughts, infertility, and foreign military invasions (Leviticus 26:12-19; Deuteronomy 28:14-17, 40-42). As Israel eventually finds themselves conquered by foreign empires, the prophets speak of salvation, referring to the nation’s restoration in the present life. The words for salvation occur 100 times in the Prophets, and the focus is consistently on physical survival.
Overall, the Old Testament hope for salvation was for national salvation. Israel’s salvation was associated with a variety of ideas:
- a messianic leader or a figure like the Servant of the Lord;
- restoration of the Davidic monarchy;
- reunification of Israel and Judah;
- a second exodus—a return to the land;
- an age of international power, peace, and agricultural blessings;
- knowledge of God spreading to all other nations;
- the restoration of heaven and earth, in animals and humans;
- forgiveness and a new covenant in which God dwells with the people.
In all of these conceptions, hopes for national salvation concern life on this side of death. While the Old Testament never fully realized any of these hopes, the New Testament would realize them all while keeping the same understanding of what salvation truly means.
The Gospel accounts continue in the tradition of the Old Testament by using the word “save” in reference to physical healing, rescue from danger, or freedom from demonic spiritual oppression. The Gospel accounts record the biography of Jesus Christ, the anticipated Messiah who would save Israel. In these four books, the Greek words for save and salvation (sōzō, sōtēria, & sōtēr) are used 57 times.2 Sōzō often means to deliver from physical danger (Matthew 8:25), to heal an illness (Matthew 9:21; Mark 5:22, 6:56), to free from an evil spirit (Luke 8:36), or to save from sins (Matthew 1:21). Jesus defends healing on the Sabbath by asking whether it is lawful to save (sōzō) life on the Sabbath (Luke 6:9). When Jesus is being crucified, people mock him for saving (sōzō) other people but being unable to save (sōzō) himself (Luke 23:35). Jesus, of course, did save himself—three days later.
Clearly, salvation in the Gospels doesn’t mean going to heaven. Instead, something far more important was taking place, the Old Testament hope for salvation was being fulfilled in every way by Jesus:
- Jesus came as the Messiah to lead God’s people (a Messiah who teaches people how to live);
- Jesus came as King in the line of David (King over the entire earth);
- Jesus reunified Israel and Judah (as now there is no dividing line between peoples);
- Jesus led people through a second exodus (out of empires like Rome);
- Jesus started a new age of peace (where war is practiced no more);
- Jesus tasked his disciples to spread the Gospel of the Kingdom to all nations (and they did);
- Jesus was the first fruit of the resurrection (and the renewal of all creation);
- Jesus forgave all people and established a new covenant (one that made the former obsolete).
Every one of these fulfilments centers around the Kingdom of God. Ultimately, because national salvation is in view for the majority of the Bible, the primary way that God saves us is through the Kingship of Jesus and the arrival of his Kingdom. While being “saved” or “salvation” are mentioned 57 times in the Gospel accounts, but the “Kingdom of God” is mentioned 125 times. The Kingdom is what Jesus talked about more than anything. The Kingdom of God is simply the physical space on earth where Jesus is ruling—a nation where God’s will is done. Therefore, in New Testament theology, salvation is an escape from the pagan nation (or empire) you were born into and an exodus and a rebirth into Christ’s nation.
Jesus said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God.” The disciples were amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?”
Here in Mark, we can see that entering the Kingdom of God is what brings salvation.
Salvation in the Gospel Accounts
The Gospel of the Kingdom—which brings salvation—is one of social transformation and restoration for the entire world. Before Jesus was even born, his mother proclaimed how God would save through him. She states that Jesus will bring down rulers from their thrones, lift up the humble, feed the hungry, and send away the rich (Luke 1:52-53). When Jesus kicked off his public ministry, he starts by reading the scroll of Isaiah, claiming that he was the new ruler that would bring good news to the poor, proclaim freedom for prisoners, provide sight for the blind, and set the oppressed free (Luke 4:18-19).
Jesus teaches everyone what life in his Kingdom looks like in his “Sermon on the Mount,” where those who are persecuted belong, where peacemakers will be called his children, and where the meek will inherit the earth (Matthew 53-12). He tells his followers to give to the needy, to not resist evil people, to love their enemies, to not make pledges, to not judge others, to not worry, and most importantly, to seek first the Kingdom of God (Matthew 5:1-7:29). He concludes by saying that if anyone does what he says, they will be saved, but anyone who doesn’t will experience calamity (Matthew 7:24-27).
The salvation that the Gospel accounts describe is not individualistic, that only occurs at merely one moment, like at the cross; rather it is the culmination of God’s redeeming work through King Jesus on behalf of all of creation. Mark says that ‘Jesus went into Galilee, where he preached God’s Gospel. “The time promised by God has come at last! The Kingdom of God is near! Repent of your sins and believe the Gospel!”‘ (Mark 1:14-15). “Repent” in Greek is the word “metanoia,” which means to “think differently.” Jesus was starting a new age of God’s Kingdom (characterized by justice, forgiveness, health, love, and peace) that requires its citizens to turn away from participating in the current, evil age of empire (characterized by injustice, inequality, sickness, idolatry, and war).
Allegiant, Loving, Salvation
Jesus went around performing miracles, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, freeing the oppressed, and displaying power over death. Scripture constantly equates these actions with salvation. These are all actions of a King who is taking back what rightfully belongs to him. Jesus didn’t have to wait for the cross to bring salvation, and he didn’t have to wait for the cross to forgive sins (Luke 5:19-20, 7:47-48). Jesus has always had the authority to forgive sins (Luke 5:25), but at the cross, he forgives everyone in the entire world (1 John 2:2). Now, anyone who has faith (or, more accurately, allegiance) can be saved (Luke 7:50). We must think differently and turn away (repent) from our sins and this fallen world and have allegiance (faith) in the one true King in order to experience salvation. This saving allegiance to Jesus is so important because it is what is required for being a part of his Kingdom. That is why Jesus teaches that rulers of the world cannot be part of his nation, instead, entry is only possible through suffering servanthood (Mark 10:42-45).
In Luke 19, Jesus meets a Jewish man named Zacchaeus, who had given his allegiance to the empire of Rome. He had succumbed to the lure of wealth to the degree that he became a tax collector. After Zacchaeus had heard the teachings of Jesus, he repented of his ways and vowed to give half of his possessions to the poor. Jesus responded by saying, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost.” (Luke 19:8-10). Jesus doesn’t mention the cross, he doesn’t mention sacrifice, he doesn’t mention substitution—he simply declares that Zacchaeus is saved. We can see how he is saved: he participated in the greed of empire, repented, and gave his wealth to the poor. His mind was transformed into a mind that upheld the values of God’s Kingdom, and therefore he was saved.
An expert in the Law of Moses asked Jesus what someone has to do to have eternal life, and he replied by saying you must love God and love your neighbor (Luke 10:25-28).3 They both agreed on who “God” was, but they had different understandings of who a “neighbor” was. Jesus clarified with a parable story in which a Jewish man was beaten and left half dead. A priest and a Levite passed by and didn’t help him, but a Samaritan did. Culturally, priests and Levites were viewed as Godly men, while Samaritans were viewed as enemy scum. Jesus explains that the Samaritan in the parable is what a neighbor looks like, and he tells them to share in the enemy love that was on display. “What must we do to be saved?” Jesus replies, “love your enemies.” No mention of a cosmic exchange achieved on the cross, only the example of loving and blessing your enemies as the means for salvation. This is so crucial because loving your neighbor, which includes your enemies, is necessary for participating in the good news of God’s Kingdom which brings salvation.
Paul’s Letters to the Churches
Paul speaks of salvation quite often, sometimes as being the opposite of dying (1 Corinthians 1:18; 2 Corinthians 2:15; 2 Thessalonians 2:10) or being destroyed (Philippians 1:28). Most of the time though, Paul doesn’t identify a specific threat from which we are saved, because contextually, for his readers, it would be obvious. Salvation is needed from the Romans and all other pagan nations who seek to oppress God’s people. Therefore, like Jesus, Paul also spread the Gospel of the Kingdom and how entering into it brings salvation.
“We must go through many hardships to enter the Kingdom of God…” (Acts 14:22)
“Paul entered the synagogue and spoke boldly there for three months, arguing persuasively about the Kingdom of God.” (Acts 19:8)
“…I have gone about preaching the Kingdom…” (Acts 20:25)
“[Paul] witnessed to them from morning till evening, explaining about the Kingdom of God, and from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets he tried to persuade them about Jesus.” (Acts 28:23)
“He proclaimed the Kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ—with all boldness and without hindrance!” (Acts 28:31)
“the Kingdom of God is… righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 14:17)
“the Kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power.” (1 Corinthians 4:20)
I want to remind you of the gospel [of the Kingdom] I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you.
1 Corinthians 15:1-2
For Paul, like Jesus and the authors of the Gospel accounts, the Gospel is the royal proclamation that God’s Kingdom has finally arrived (Mark 1:14-15 ESV). For all of them, it is Jesus and his nation that bring the salvation that the Old Testament authors dreamed about for hundreds of years.4
Throughout his letters to various churches, Paul sometimes connects words such as “justification” and “reconciliation” with the death of Jesus, but he rarely associates “sōzō” terminology with the crucifixion. Instead, Paul associates “sōzō” with the spoken word (Romans 1:16; 10:9-10; 13; 1 Corinthians 1:18, 21; 15:2; Ephesians 1:13; 1 Thessalonians 2:16; 2 Thessalonians 2:10; 1 Timothy 2:4; 4:16). Paul seems to agree with Jesus that people become “saved” by hearing the good news of Christ’s Kingdom and participating in it. In this sense, Paul sometimes says that a person “saves” others by bringing the Gospel to them (Romans 11:14; 1 Corinthians 7:16; 9:22; 1 Timothy 4:16).
It Is Jesus’
Death Life That Saves
In all four Gospel accounts of Christ’s birth, life, death, and resurrection, not a single one mentions salvation equating to “Jesus died on the cross so you can go to heaven when you die.” Go read the closing to each Gospel account, after Jesus resurrects he doesn’t mention anything about salvation. Now, that isn’t to say that Christ’s death and resurrection did nothing. As we have explored, it just means that salvation is much more about this-life than the after-life. It means that salvation is a lot more about Jesus’s life than it is about Jesus’s death.
Some church traditions place a heavy emphasis on Paul’s letters when it comes to understanding and communicating what salvation is. They make salvation almost entirely about a transaction or singular event that took place on the cross. Unfortunately, this is a significant mistake. Paul’s letters are just that—letters. They were situational and contextual, written to specific people at a specific time dealing with specific issues. The way Paul talks about salvation, the metaphors he uses, and what aspects he emphasizes change depending on the issues a particular church is facing. This means that any particular single letter, like Romans, for instance, doesn’t give a complete picture of what salvation is. It’s important to realize that Paul’s letters assume the reader has already heard the Gospel of the Kingdom, which is why he doesn’t need to repeat it. Unfortunately, this causes some Christians to assume the Gospel content is contained within his letters, when it is mostly contained in—well, you know—in the Gospel accounts.
That is the main issue—Paul doesn’t rehash the message of Jesus’ life. Not that he needs to, we have the four Gospel accounts after all, but that also means we cannot learn the fullness of the Gospel or salvation from his letters. Paul talks more about his own background than he talks about Christ’s life, and ironically he talks more about his actions as exemplary than he does Jesus’. Paul talks about the crucifixion and resurrection but he doesn’t talk about the life of Jesus, who he interacted with, or how he lived his life. Because this information about Jesus’ healing and teaching ministry is missing there is no possible way to gain a complete understanding of what salvation is from his letters. Paul clearly felt he needed to bring more information about what Jesus’ death accomplished while the Gospel writers didn’t feel that need.
If someone only had access to Paul’s letter to the Romans, and no other Scripture, would they be able to understand what salvation actually is? No. If someone only had access to Luke’s Gospel account, and no other Scripture, would they be able to understand what salvation actually is? Yes. Because it is the account of Jesus’ life that shows us how to live and therefore how to be saved.
As we’ve seen, salvation is mostly about our current life. It is about, well, being saved—being saved from physical danger, being saved from sickness, being saved from death, being saved from all the ways that sin brings us harm. But it is more than just that, it is also about being saved from worldly culture, idolatry, pagan patriotism, and from the nations of the world that are ultimately controlled by Satan. Salvation is an exodus from the empires of the world that seek to enslave us to greed, lust, power, consumerism, selfishness, security, and fear.
Salvation isn’t about going to heaven when you die. If it was, wouldn’t the people in the thousands of years recorded in the Old Testament be concerned with where they go when they die? But they weren’t. No one in the Old Testament cared about how they could go to heaven when they die because they didn’t believe in anything like that. The same is true for the New Testament. The Bible says we go to the grave. But when Christians become too focused on Paul’s writings as a means of understanding salvation the tendency is to mistake phrases like “the Kingdom of God” for “heaven after we die.” This is not what Jesus taught. Instead, Jesus announced the good news that his nation and his kingship had finally arrived! Salvation is being in—and participating in—the nation that Jesus announced.
When anyone asked Jesus what they had to do to be saved they didn’t have the afterlife in view—they had their current life in view. They were concerned with the Roman occupation. They were concerned with the prophesied judgment on Jerusalem. They were concerned with physical danger. The way of Jesus—forgiveness, enemy love, nonresistance—saved Christians from the Romans and the destruction of Jerusalem. When the armies surrounded the city, the Christians were already gone, having paid heed to Christ’s warnings. They didn’t stay and try to fight as they were committed to Jesus’ way of nonviolence and enemy love. One million Jews are recorded to have died in that war, but not a single Christian. Jesus saved them. The way of Jesus can save us too.
If they have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and are overcome, they are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning.
2 Peter 2:20
- Michael D. Morrison, “Salvation,” The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).
- “sōzō” is used 49 times, “sōtēria” 5 times, and “sōtēr” 3 times.
- The term “eternal life” often appears to be equated with the results of salvation (John 3:16-17; 5:34, 39; 12:47, 50).
- Joel T. Hamme, “Salvation,” Lexham Theological Wordbook (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2014).