Christian Salvation -- Is it about this life or the afterlife?

Some Christians have a narrow understanding of salvation that makes it all about the afterlife (going to heaven). They think they know who has it and who doesn’t, who’s in and who’s out, and they consider the work of the church to be largely about converting others to their version of the truth of salvation. It’s hard for me to be too critical of these Christians, since at one time, I, also held to that exclusive version of salvation.

Progressive Christians (and more evangelical Christians are coming to this realization also) insist that there are multiple images and metaphors for salvation in the Scriptures and different contemporary ways for understanding salvation. Many Christians are surprised to learn that not a single reference to salvation in the Old Testament relates to the afterlife. And only a few references in the New Testament relate specifically to the afterlife.

One of the dominant images in both Testaments is salvation as liberation from bondage. In the OT this is Israel’s primal story: Israel’s liberation from the domination system of Egypt. In the NT this is understood primarily as liberation from entrapment, liberation from the anti-life pull toward alienation, disintegration, and addiction (what Paul called the “flesh” and “the law of sin and death”). 

This image, as it is found in one Gospel story, is particularly illuminating. Just after Jesus predicts for the third time his suffering and death, James and John ask if they can sit by Jesus’ side in his kingdom and share Jesus’ rule (Mark 10:35–37) . This continues the bitter dispute the disciples had been having over who would be the greatest (see Mark 9:30–37).

Jesus says, “This is how the prominent people of the world function. They strive for places and positions of power in order to lord it over others. Not so with you. If you want to participate in God’s dream for the world, then you must become the servant of all” (my paraphrase of Mark 10:42–44). Then, Jesus offers his own life as an example, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

The word translated “ransom” could also be translated “redemption” or “liberation.” Jesus is not specifically speaking of his death, though his death is the culmination of the life he lived. This text is saying that the self-giving, sacrificial life of the Son of Man (Jesus) becomes a means of liberation for his disciples as they follow his way of life.

The afterlife is not in view at all. The liberation here, in this passage, is from a life of grasping power and position, from the need to lord it over others. The disciples wanted to turn the old pecking order, where they were on the bottom, into a new pecking order, where they would be on the top. Jesus wanted to liberate them from the pecking order all-together. Jesus wanted to ransom/redeem them from the whole game of competing with and comparing themselves to others, so they would be free to be “servants of all”—without regard or distinction for social status, without bias or prejudice, without favoritism toward any.

Some Christians like to think of salvation only in terms of the afterlife, because then they don’t have to struggle with the need to die to the ego-driven self and become a humble servant of all people, which is what Jesus requires. It’s much easier and more convenient to make salvation about going to heaven. One hardly has to change at all; just believe the right doctrines or obey the right Christian rituals.

Healthy Christianity is about personal, communal, and societal transformation. It’s about liberation from egotism, greed, and selfish ambition. It’s about reflecting the image of God in all our relationships, embodying the love and compassion of Christ in all that we do, and serving all people without discrimination.  


  1. Thanks for this post. I wrote about the same topic in my blog, Daily Passages, on Wednesday. If you're interested, you can read it at

  2. thank you for this - it reflects the understanding I have now come to about salvation.
    I remember [in an online discussion] a Christian lady who was from the same Christian background I was raised in, [Plymouth Brethren], telling me off for trying to explain this, and implying I was heretical :) [as she also did when I suggested that we may not go floating off into the sky at Jesus' return].

  3. Hebrew children in the Old Testament were born into God's covenant, both male and female. Circumcision was the sign of this covenant for boys, but the sign was not what saved them. Faith saved them. Rejecting the sign, circumcision, for boys, either by the parents or later as an adult himself, was a sign of a lack of true faith, and therefore the child was "cut off" from God's promises as clearly stated in Genesis chapter 17:

    "Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, 13 both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. 14 Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”

    What was the purpose of this covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? God tells us in the beginning of this chapter of Genesis:

    "And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you."

    This covenant wasn't just to establish a Jewish national identity or a promise of the inheritance of the land of Caanan, as some evangelicals want you to believe. In this covenant, God promises to be their God. Does God say here that he will be their God only if they make a "decision for God" when they are old enough to have the intelligence and maturity to decide for themselves? No! They are born into the covenant!

    If Jewish children grew up trusting in God and lived by faith, they then received eternal life when they died. If when they grew up, they rejected God, turned their back on God, and lived a life of willful sin, when they died, they suffered eternal damnation. Salvation was theirs to LOSE. There is no record anywhere in the Bible that Jewish children were required to make a one time "decision for God" upon reaching an "Age of Accountability" in order to be saved.

    Therefore, Jewish infants who died, even before circumcision, were saved.

    The same is true today. Christian children are born into the covenant. They are saved by faith. It is not the act of baptism that saves, it is faith. The refusal to be baptized is a sign of a lack of true faith and may result in the child being "cut off" from God's promise of eternal life, to suffer eternal damnation, as happened with the unfaithful Hebrew in the OT.

    Christ said, "He that believes and is baptized will be saved, but he that does not believe will be damned."

    It is not the lack of baptism that damns, it is the lack of faith that damns.


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