Trevor Hart, Zooming in on Salvation
Trevor Hart is Professor of Divinity at the University of St. Andrews
in Edinburgh, Scotland. He received his PhD from the University of Aberdeen in 1989.
Dr. Hart says that God's heart beats with love for everyone he’s made, so he calls them into fellowship with himself. This is good news, not just for Christians but for everyone.
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J. Michael Feazell: Let’s talk about salvation. Christ has saved us, we want salvation, salvation is good. What is it we’re being saved from? Are we being saved from something, for something, what is salvation all about?
Trevor Hart: That’s a huge question. Scripture and Christian theology use lots of different pictures, we can call them, in order to answer that question. Some of them have more prominence in the Bible than others, some of them are more prominent in certain strands of Christian tradition than others, but there are a number of them. For example, we’re being saved from something which is like being (in terms of the court of law) guilty. We’re being delivered from the dangers hanging over us of guilt. When you think in those terms, then you use the language of the law court to explain what it is that God has done to deliver us from that…so the language is of judgment, of the execution of justice and so on.
But there are other ways of describing it, too, so the Bible will talk equally of us being in bondage to some sort of slavery, whether it’s personified in terms of Satan and evil spirits or whether it’s left more abstract than that. In some sense we’re struggling with something that we can’t break out of ourselves. The language of salvation is cast in terms of deliverance, of being set free, redemption, the liberation of the slave in the marketplace, being bought with a price, all that sort of imagery comes into play. There are others — disease and healing is another. Victory over forces that we’re struggling with. Someone is victorious over them for us, because we can’t defeat them ourselves, and so on.
That leads us to realize that salvation is multi-faceted. Whatever it is, it involves something way beyond our understanding. It’s complex.
Correspondingly, the human situation — that which we’re being rescued from — also needs all these different pictures and probably plenty of others to help us articulate it. One that I haven’t alluded to yet and probably should, given its contemporary relevance, is debt. We have this huge debt that we can’t possibly pay. So what are we going to do? We’re crushed by it, we have no resources to pay it. The corresponding picture of salvation is, someone steps in and pays the price for us. All these pictures help us to get some partial understanding on the mystery which is salvation, and therefore helps us see the scale of the problem that confronts us.
If there is an overarching answer to “What is the problem?”, it has to be answered at a high level, and say, “It’s the consequence of being in a broken relationship with our Maker. It’s the consequence of being out of kilter in terms of our relationship with God, for fellowship with whom we were created.” That’s the fundamental premise, that we were created, we were made to be in fellowship with God as Father.
Once we get that out of alignment, once we become alienated from God as our Father, then things go wrong in all sorts of departments of life, and we need all these different ways of thinking and speaking to make some sense of what’s going on, because frankly, we don’t know what’s going on anymore — we’ve lost the plot. We’re in a mess and we need someone to get us out of it. That’s the other leitmotif [or theme] that moves along with the story of salvation: we can’t fix it. We may have got ourselves into the mess, but we certainly can’t fix it, so salvation is God doing what needs to be done for our sakes to get us out of the mess and to put us where we were always meant to be — back in fellowship with himself.
JMF: There’s a sense in which we’re already saved, and yet in another sense we’re saved in the future. The one blossoms into the other…
TH: If we’re going to take the whole of what the Bible has to tell us seriously, then we have to reckon with some things that seem to run into conflict, but actually need to be held in tension. There’s a sense in which the most important thing has already happened, and the Bible leads us to say that God came in his Son Jesus and did what needs to be done. C. S. Lewis uses a military metaphor — the decisive battle has been won, but there are lots of skirmishes still to be carried out before the war is over.
What happened for you and me has happened. Nothing can undo it. But we still live in an age where that remains to be worked out through whatever is left of human history. That is the Spirit’s work applying what God has done for us in Jesus Christ — living his life, being crucified, then risen in our individual lives. Paul used the imagery of crucifixion and resurrection for what goes on daily in a Christian’s walk with God.
It’s important to see it not just as, “God’s done the most important thing, and now there’s this inconvenient time where we’re not one thing or the other and we just have to hang on and eventually it will all come right and God will bring it all to a close.” God doesn’t do things without reason, and I suspect there’s something important… what he has done for us needs yet to be worked out in us — it’s important that this happens to you and me through the threescore years and ten or whatever it proves to be of our lives — that application and working out, in and through the particular circumstances of your life and mine, matters for who we shall be when finally, we’re raised anew and brought into God’s presence in the kingdom.
What about other people?
JMF: Yet, some people come to faith and then die very soon afterwards. How do we equate the two?
TH: That’s a huge question — difficult to answer with any clarity. It suggests that we don’t all need to have a certain amount of time in order for things to be worked out in this life for salvation to occur. Salvation, in some sense, as we’ve already said, has been done. It’s a done deal, once and for all, in Christ. And God deals with individuals individually.
It matters that you or I continue in faith for several decades or whatever it is. Perhaps in God’s purposes it doesn’t matter that someone else doesn’t. We have to trust that their salvation will be worked out in full (as it were) in some other way, so that they are who they are called to be in the kingdom. I don’t think the process of working it out in life is, in that sense, necessary to our salvation, but it seems to be important nonetheless when it occurs.
JMF: In the Narnia Chronicles, sometimes one of the kids asks Aslan about somebody, “Why is this happening to him and not to me (or vice versa)?” Aslan always says, “That’s his story. I’m talking to you about your story.”
TH: Exactly. God calls us to be who we are. Karl Barth says in his discussion of this that God grants each of us our time. We don’t know how long our time will be, but that’s the time God calls us to be faithful in. Our salvation, in a sense, doesn’t depend on it. Our salvation depends wholly on Christ and what he has done. But for now, this is who God calls us to be, and our task is not to ask about others and the brevity of their appearance on the stage. It’s to get on and live faithfully the part he’s called us to play so that when the judgment comes we can say, “I tried to be faithful to what you called me to be.” That’s what will matter. Salvation won’t rest on it, but it matters that we do it, that we’re faithful and not unfaithful.
JMF: Which raises the question, what about people we care about and love who didn’t hear the gospel? Is there anything wrong with thinking that the heart of God toward such people is more full of love than we can have for them?
TH: I think we have to believe that. It’s such a powerful question and a painful question. It ought to be painful for any Christian because Christian faith is driven, or should be, by the realization that that is precisely who God is — that God is a Father whose heart beats with love for all those he’s made — that he created them to call them into fellowship with himself, that’s the reason for their being, that’s the calling to which they’re called, and his greatest desire is that they should fulfill that calling. That has to be the context in which we ask questions.
It also has to be the theological context in which we interpret passages of Scripture that seem to point to the possibility of that not happening. We can’t treat those passages lightly. We can’t ignore their teaching, but we have to interpret them in the light of that fundamental conviction. That makes it more difficult, and far more uncomfortable than Christians have sometimes been, to consign people to some wherever other than in an eternity in communion with the Father.
Any consideration of that question has to be with fear and trembling. It has to be undergirded by that fundamental conviction that who God is, is who we see him to be in the face of his Son for everyone — not simply for us. We can do no more than commit people to the God who we know in that way, rather than speculate about their eternal destiny. We should be concerned about it, we should pray for them, we should do everything we can to bring them to know the Father if they don’t already know the Father. But finally, it’s in his hands and not ours. As you said a moment ago, God calls each of us to be concerned with our story, not theirs, at a certain point.
JMF: In the Inquisition the idea was supposedly (apart from the political considerations and so on) that in doing everything we can, we have to get somebody to come to a confession of faith, because torturing them is worth preserving them from the alternative and so on. What is wrong with that thinking?
TH: It raises the question about what the confession of faith is, doesn’t it? If we’re agreed that faith is about gratitude — it’s not simply about discovering who God is, discovering him to be our Father, but discovering that and receiving it joyfully, and with gratitude – then extracting intellectual assent or apparent intellectual assent from somebody under the pain of torture or worse seems to me to be an absolute nonsense in terms of bringing someone to faith — it simply has nothing to do with it.
Thomas Erskine, the Scots theologian from the 19th century, says somewhere that you can’t frighten people into love. Even if we’re not forcing them to confess with the use of pain, another version of that has been to extract confession from people by frightening them. Again, that seems to have little to do with the true nature of faith and response to the gospel. The thing that’s the most wrong with it, is that it misunderstands completely the nature of faith as a response to the good news.
The other thing to say is that the good news for Christians is not simply good news for Christians – it’s good news for all. That’s the message, that this is who God is. It’s not simply who God is for some, it’s not simply who God chooses to be on certain days of the week, it’s who God is. That has to set the boundaries and the context in which we reflect on what it means to bring others into a saving knowledge of this God. Until they discover that that’s who God is, they can’t respond in an appropriate way. Getting them to tick boxes or make verbal confessions has got nothing to do with it. It’s a fundamental shift of disposition, to discovering that this is who God is, that the universe is God’s creation, and this is who I am as God’s creature, and I’m responding joyfully to that. That’s in God’s hands, not ours.
The fear of hell
JMF: Much of evangelism is still done with the idea of fear, of avoiding hell. It seems that knowing God as the God who is for us, for humanity, changes the face of evangelism – the approach – turning it around.
TH: Yes. I don’t think it means that we lose sight of the language of hell, or the sense of urgency about accepting the gospel. But it’s a different sort of urgency. Who, knowing if this were true, would not want to respond to it quickly? You’re missing out on something good. It completely recasts it, because it’s now a message of genuine good news, unalloyed good news, not a threat with a salvage hatch provided. It’s news which changes everything, changes the way I see the whole of life, my own purpose and existence, and to which there can only be a response of gratitude.
When that’s not forthcoming, that is, as Barth somewhere else says, the ultimate mystery: why would someone hear the good news, understand it as good news, and then say no to it? He characterizes that as the most mysterious of all things. He leaves it open as a possibility, but he sees it as a denial of all that we are as human beings. That means that if we are going to talk about danger of loss of salvation or hell, then it has to be cast in terms of the shadow cast by the light.
The fundamental thing about the gospel is that it’s light, it’s good. That is who God is. God is not someone who is out there to get us, or waiting for an excuse to get us — some Dirty Harry character that’s waiting for us to make his day, just itching for an excuse to judge us. God, on the contrary, desires nothing more than our salvation and goes to whatever lengths necessary to secure it. But there remains that colorfully illustrated inference that if people, notwithstanding all that, and for whatever reason finally identify themselves so thoroughly with that which is incompatible with God and his purposes for us, that then they will finally isolate themselves from that.
That’s hard to reckon with theologically. It’s a very odd circumstance. If God is this good and all-powerful and loving Father who seeks our salvation, it makes that problematic. But I think Scripture compels us at least to reckon with the possibility that if someone so identifies themselves with evil, and the things of evil, to cease even to want anymore to respond to that goodness, then that’s where the language and the imagery of hell starts to come back into play. I don’t think we can ignore it. We have to take it very seriously. I’d rather people found that problematic, and got a grasp of the good news as good news.
JMF: It was strange, in terms of the gospel, after the terrorist attacks in 2001. We had the images and descriptions of firemen who saw the building was in distress, but went back in to try to pull out as many as they could, and were killed. Then on the following Sunday, many preachers, rather than calling them heroes as everyone else had, consigned some of them to hell because they had not become Christians before the building fell on them.
It was a message of “something like that could happen to you at any moment, and if you don’t want to be like them, then you need to accept the gospel while you’re still alive.” It presented God and the gospel as kind of inept, in one sense, because he doesn’t care about the selflessness of the people who went in to save others — that amounted to nothing and was no reflection of him and he really didn’t care, or, conversely, maybe he was wringing his hands and saying, “I wish somebody had gotten to them with the gospel before that.” It doesn’t make sense, that sort of preaching. At least it doesn’t seem to square with the…
TH: It’s very problematic. The temptation is for us to slip into thinking, “Of course they’ll be saved because they did what they did.” I don’t think that’s relevant. It’s hugely to their credit that they did what they did, but that’s not really where the stakes are in terms of salvation or loss of salvation. They proved themselves to be brave and worthy human beings, and that’s what needs to be said, and they gave up their lives for others. Whether they are saved will not rest on that.
Does God rely on the ability or inability or the timing of human beings, does he get caught out by something like 9/11? That brings in a whole raft of problems that we could go around in circles on for a while. What we do know is that God loved each of those people in the towers, each of those people who went into the towers to get people out and themselves gave up their lives — he made them to exist eternally in fellowship with himself, he sent his Son to die for their sins, and he desires nothing more than their salvation. When we’ve said that, we’ve said the most important things.
At some stage we have to hand it over to God and say, “God, in your mercy, you deal with these people, because you know whether any of them had made in their heart of hearts some sort of a decision in life which distanced them so much from God as to exclude themselves from that.” It is up to him to know, not for us to know.
Dealing with that extreme instance seems to be unhelpful because it puts the issues in the wrong place and suggests that it’s in those extreme circumstances rather than in the everyday life, where these life and death, in a sense, decisions confront us day in and day out. That’s where what matters really occurs in life. The thing that matters is what God has done for us, not the decisions we make day in and day out. Although they may seem to be vital decisions, they’re overshadowed by that one big decision.
JMF: Let’s talk about eternal life for a moment. The Bible says that we’ve already entered eternal life. The Bible has us already seated with Christ at the right hand of the Father. How should we understand eternal life in that context as something that’s already taken place, and yet we want to think of it as something that takes place after the return of Christ?
TH: It is, in a sense, a matter of things which we believe will be the case after the return of Christ already breaking in and shaping, reshaping, the quality of life in here and now. Maybe the word eternal is a bit misleading, because we tend to think of it in terms of temporality, that something eternal goes on and on, like a dreary lecture or sermon, whereas the temporal aspect of it is difficult to picture, and we don’t know what temporality or non-temporality will be like after the return of Christ.
It’s more important to picture it as a quality of existence — it is life with a capital L, as John talks about — “and this life is in his Son.” If we think about it like that, then perhaps we can see how, in a sense, we both look forward to having that quality of life in the hereafter — when history has reached its close, when God has judged the world and wrapped everything up and handed it over to his Son — and that already breaks in now.
The way it breaks in now is that we already have communion with the Father. When people say, “I can’t picture what the quality of eternal life is going to be like,” I want to say, “No, in a sense you can’t picture what it’s like, but you’re not left wholly without some indication.” Probably the most obvious indication is those moments of intimate communion with God that we have in prayer and in worship and so on, because that is relationship with the Father though the Son in the power of the Spirit. That is going to characterize the whole of our experience in eternity.
That qualitative aspect is helpful in making sense of the idea of eternal life, because we do have that now. We only have it partially, we only have it on an occasional basis. We’re probably not conscious of it, most of us, for much of the time. But we get glimpses of it, we can anticipate it, and we can enjoy it in part already. So rather than thinking about it in terms of a temporal model of eternity, what we might be doing for all that time, we think about it in those qualitative terms, of enjoying God’s fellowship, and that’s probably a more helpful way.
JMF: In the time we have left, if there’s one thing you would like for people to know about God, what would it be?
TH: If I haven’t already got it, I think it is that God made them to enjoy being in his presence — that was in his mind’s eye from the very first. It shapes everything he does and who he is, and he has done all that is necessary for them to enjoy that. That’s who he’s calling them to be. He has not waited for them to decide that it’s a good idea, he’s already decided it’s a good idea, and now he offers it freely for them to lay hold of and make their own, and enjoy in this life and then in the life to come, too. God isn’t a problem – God calls us to enjoy being his children in the Spirit.