I ONCE heard a college chaplain talking to students about the word “salvation”. He went for a humanistic definition. Salvation, he said, was really a word for fulfilment. It meant that our personal journey of self-discovery was destined to arrive in a good place. Such a definition tuned well with what were then current expectations about the inevitability of personal and social progress. Life is a journey. Things get better. It even echoed the “inalienable rights” enshrined in the American Declaration of Independence: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.
The Christian Union wrote the chaplain off as a useless “liberal”, too wet to mention the stark realities of heaven and hell, sin and grace. At the time, I was mildly sympathetic to the chaplain's viewpoint and believed that it could be justified by a patristic account of humanity as corporate and universal: “As in Adam . . . so in Christ.” But, even then, I worried about what it said to those who would not find earthly fulfilment: those who died too young, those who never had a chance because of some genetic condition or crippling psychological disorder, even those whose poverty could not be relieved in this lifetime. What could salvation as fulfilment mean for them?
Most of us are glad to see the back of 2020. It has been a terrible year. Even those of us who have not been badly affected may feel cheated of what we have assumed to be our right to happiness and security.
There is, of course, an older and tougher way of seeing salvation, which is to accept that this earthly life is not and never will be a paradise. Suffering is part of the deal, and it is often random and unmerited. Salvation is no guarantee of personal fulfilment, but is about God’s saving us from the consequences of our own, and others’, perversity. In the short term, evil sometimes wins. The darkness sometimes closes over us. And yet “the light shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not.” The Authorised Version “comprehended” makes the point: the light is just too good, too fascinating, too beautiful for evil to get its claws into. Holding to this requires faith and fortitude.
As 2020 gives way to 2021, we might wonder what we mean when we wish each other a happy new year. Perhaps, in 2021, the Church can encourage us to practise the virtues of faith and fortitude, even though they cannot ensure either safety, happiness, or the “progress” that we assume is our destiny.
Salvation in this world is not the fulfilment of progressive dreams, but, rather, the capacity to rest in God’s will, trusting in God’s ultimate justice. We are called not to be the spiritual branch of the NHS, but heralds of Good News — a reality that we ourselves can barely comprehend.