Theology 101: Salvation

By: Robert A. Krieg, University of Notre Dame

What is salvation? And how do we find it?

According to some Christians, a follower of Jesus should know the day and hour when he or she was saved. But according to Catholicism, salvation does not occur in an instant but is a life-long journey in response to God’s gift.

The Bible begins and ends with rich depictions of creation headed toward salvation, the “last age.” In Genesis 1:1 – 2:4a, God fashions a harmonious, majestic creation. In Genesis 2:4b-25, God cultivates the flourishing Garden of Eden. Revelation 21:1 – 22:5 attests that God will realize “a new heaven and a new earth”; God “will dwell” in the “new Jerusalem” and “wipe away every tear”; “death shall be no more.”

These are breath-taking visions of creation-salvation. Yet, these biblical images do not usually come to mind amid talk of being saved. Why? According to the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, “the beautiful Christian metaphor ‘salvation’ has been reduced to “a vapid synonym for ‘piety’ – not even a truly ethical concept.”

But salvation concerns neither piety nor ethics. It refers – Merton states – to “God’s love and care for . . . the human person.” To be saved is to accept God’s gift of “that which is unique, irreplaceable, incommunicable – that which is myself alone.” It is to embrace what God offers: my full or true self.[1]

Both a Journey and a Destination

According to Jesus, salvation is “like a treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” Also, it is “like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it” (Mt 13:44-45; my italics).

In other words, salvation is both a journey and a destination. This journey – itself God’s gift – includes four phases. Desiring the unknown treasure / pearl, we search for the person whom God intends us to be. We find the treasure / pearl: our true or fuller selves. At this moment, we experience our personal identity not as invented by us but as discovered in God. In response, we sell everything that gave us fleeting security; in particular, we relinquish our controlling egos. And, we buy the treasure / pearl, our true selves, so that we may give ourselves for the benefit of others and the earth.[2]

As we make this “saving” journey, we move during our lives toward our destination – also, God’s gift – which is personal wholeness, beyond death, in community with God’s people in union with the risen Christ. Raised by God to new life, we enter into what Jesus called the “kingdom of God.”

Salvation, Liberation and Redemption

The term salvation (Latin, “to be made safe”) comes from its root salus which means “health,” “well-being,” “wellness,” “personal wholeness.” This medical metaphor of being healed functions to describe God’s gift of our whole, unique persons, our salus. Paradoxically, our maturation gradually occurs as we move closer to God; the greater our union with God, the greater our individuation. (See Ex 15:2; Lk 3:30.)[3]

Two other terms shed further light on the mystery of God’s salus / gift to us. “Redemption” (Latin, “to buy back”) means to be purchased or ransomed from a slave master. This financial metaphor highlights that God bought us from a tyrant: evil, death and absurdity. Thanks to God’s “payment,” we are no longer deprived of our well-being, our salus. (See Ex 6:6; Gal 4:4-5.)[4]

In this context, “liberation” (Latin “to be freed”) refers to the movement of a community from a condition of oppression to a condition of justice, respect, equality, and opportunity. This metaphor of freedom connotes the biblical sense of “deliverance.” In order to respond to God’s gift of salus, people need to be delivered / freed from social structures and economic-political systems that deprive them of their sacred dignity. (See Ex 14:13; Rom 11:26.)[5]

Biblical talk of deliverance / liberation clarifies that God’s gift of salus is communal. God saves us not as individuals but within our communities. As someone moves toward personal wholeness, he or she will impact others for the better. Conversely, someone matures into his or her true self in large part through the strength and guidance of a life-giving community.[6]

To be sure, salvation, redemption and liberation are possible in our lives only because of Jesus Christ who is the savior, the redeemer and the deliverer / liberator (1 Tim 2:5). However, this topic will need to wait until this essay’s sequel.[7]

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Photo (c) Vatican Pool/Getty Images
— Photo by Vatican Pool/Getty Images (12/21/15)–

Let us end with a return to Genesis 1-2, and Revelation 21 – 22. These inspiring / inspired texts envision the destination to which our life journeys are oriented. Not surprisingly, Pope Francis alludes to these images of salvation in his encyclical on the environment Laudato Si’ (May 24, 2015). In particular, at the encyclical’s conclusion (n. 243), he writes:

At the end we will find ourselves face to face with the infinite beauty of God (cf. 1 Cor 13:12) and be able to read with admiration and happiness the mystery of the universe, which with us will share in unending plenitude. Even now we are journeying toward the Sabbath of eternity, the new Jerusalem, toward our common home in Heaven. Jesus says: “I make all things new” (Rev 21:5). Eternal life will be a shared experience of awe, in which each creature, resplendently transfigured, will take its rightful place and have something to give those poor men and women who will have been liberated once and for all.

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Robert A. Krieg is a Professor of Systematic Theology at the University of Notre Dame, where he has taught for nearly 40 years.

This post was originally published, and last updated, on February 3, 2016.

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Interested in learning more? 

Monika K. Hellwig, Understanding Catholicism, 2nd Edition (NY: Paulist Press, 2002).
Gerald O’Collins, S.J., Salvation for All: God’s Other People (NY: Oxford University Press, 2008).
Robin Ryan, C.P., Jesus and Salvation: Soundings in the Christian Tradition and Contemporary Theology (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2015).

[1] Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (Boston: Shambhala, [1961] 2003), Chapter 6: “Pray for Your Own Discovery.”
[2] Robert A. Krieg, Treasure in the Field: Salvation in the Bible and in Our Lives (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2013), Chapter 1: “God’s Gift: Creation and Salvation”; Chapter 3: “Conversion: Our Yes to God’s Gift.”
[3] Gerald O’Collins, S.J., and Edward G. Farrugia, S.J., A Concise Dictionary of Theology, Revised and Expanded Edition (NY: Paulist Press, 2000), pp. 233-34: “Salvation.”
[4] Ibid, pp. 221-22: “Redemption.”
[5] Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation, trans. and ed. Sister Caridad Inda and John Eagleston (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, [1973] 1988), Chapter 9: “Liberation and Salvation.” Elizabeth A. Johnson, Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God (NY: Continuum, 2008), Chapter 4: “Liberating God of Life.”
[6] Pope Benedict XVI, “Encyclical Letter: Saved in Hope, Spe Salvi,” n. 13-15: “Is Christian Hope Individualistic?”
[7] Pope Francis, “Apostolic Exhortation: The Joy of the Gospel, Evangelii Gaudium, I. A Joy Ever New, A Joy Which is Shared.”