How Jesus Became Savior
For many Christians, the word “Jesus” is virtually synonymous with the word “savior.” God sent his son so that, as the New Testament puts it, “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
In a sense, actually, God’s salvation had long been visible. The Israelites were saved from the Egyptians by Yahweh. (“God, their Savior, who had done great things in Egypt,” as the Hebrew Bible has it.) They were later saved from various other tormentors, sometimes by a human being sent for that purpose. (“The Lord gave Israel a savior, so that they escaped from the hand of the Arameans.”) And even as Yahweh subjected them to the wrath of the Babylonians—his subtle reminder that salvation is not unconditional—he was preparing Cyrus of Persia to carry divine salvation to the Israelites yet again. Thus the prophet Jeremiah could call Yahweh the “hope of Israel, its savior in time of trouble.”
But none of this is what Christians mean by “salvation.” When they call Christ the savior, they’re not talking about the salvation of the society or even the physical salvation of the individual, but rather the salvation of the individual’s soul upon death. The heart of the Christian message is that God sent his son to lay out the path to eternal life.
Jesus is, in this view, a heavenly being who controls access to heaven. He “is seated on the right hand of the Father” and will “judge the living and the dead,” as it is put in the Nicene Creed, a foundational document of ancient Christianity and to this day a common denominator of Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and most Protestant churches.
This Christian notion of salvation was a watershed in the evolution of the Abrahamic god—or, at least, in the non-Jewish lineage of that evolution. In both its Christian and Muslim forms, it would prove influential in ways both fortunate and unfortunate. Believing that heaven awaits you shortly after death makes death a less harrowing prospect. And this, in turn, can make dying in a holy war a more attractive prospect, a fact that has shaped history and even today shapes headlines.
After Jesus’s death, there was good news and bad news for anyone who would set out to carry the Christian message of salvation across the Roman Empire. Both kinds of news are embodied in little figurines that archaeologists have found in the northern regions of the empire. There, scattered across burial sites, are bronze renditions of a god named Osiris. Exploiting trade routes, this god had traveled all the way to Gaul—what is now France—from his native Egypt.
Osiris, who had been a major god in Egypt for millennia, bore a striking resemblance to the Jesus described in the Nicene Creed. He inhabited the afterworld, and there he judged the recently deceased, granting eternal life to those who believed in him and lived by his code. Hence the good news for Christian evangelists: Osiris’s penetration of the Roman Empire suggested a widespread thirst for a divine figure of this sort, a sizable niche that a figure like Jesus might fill. And hence the bad news: at least some of the demand for this kind of divinity had already been met. As Christians carried the gospel across the Roman Empire, they would face competition from a god that already embodied some of the emotional appeal we associate with Christianity.
The earliest of these evangelists faced a second kind of bad news as they preached the gospel in the Roman Empire. Not only was there already some crowding in the market for a blissful afterlife via spiritual salvation; Jesus himself, it turns out, didn’t initially fit into this market niche very well. This will strike some people, including Christians, as strange. Doesn’t the Nicene Creed describe a Jesus tailor-made for that niche? Yes, but the Nicene Creed was written centuries after Jesus died. The common picture of Jesus it reflects—Jesus as heavenly arbiter of immortality—would have seemed strange to followers of Jesus during his lifetime. So would its corollary: that the righteous ascend to heaven in the afterlife.
Eternal life of a certain kind may well have been part of Jesus’s original message. But it may not have been, and in any event the details of the story—the part about heaven, for example—changed consequentially in the decades after the Crucifixion. The way the now official story took shape is a case study in how God evolves to fill the psychological needs of his followers and also the survival needs of himself.
How Heaven Became Heaven
The idea of followers of Jesus getting to join him in heaven upon dying probably didn’t take shape until about a half century after he died. To be sure, his followers believed from early on that the faithful would be admitted to the “kingdom of heaven,” as the New Testament calls it. But “kingdom of heaven” is just Matthew’s term for what Mark had called the “kingdom of God”—and, as we’ve seen, the kingdom of God was going to be on earth. In Matthew, Jesus says, “Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age.” Angels will come down and scour the land for “all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.”
Note the dynamic: angels come to earth from heaven and weed out the bad people, after which the good people remain on the new, improved earth. There’s nothing about the souls of dead people ascending to heaven.
In fact, there’s nothing about dead people at all. Jesus, convinced that the kingdom of God was “at hand,” didn’t spend much time describing the afterlife; he spoke as if the day of reckoning was going to arrive any moment, before his listeners had a chance to die, and told people how to prepare. Judgment Day was about the living, not the dead.
But just out of curiosity: What was going to become of dead people? Would they be resurrected and enter God’s kingdom? And what was existence like for them in the meanwhile? In the years after the Crucifixion, such questions would grow salient as Jesus’s followers saw friends and family, people with whom they’d expected to enter the kingdom, die. In a letter Paul wrote to Christians in the Macedonian city of Thessalonica—probably the earliest document in the New Testament—he confronts the unease: “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” Those who stand in God’s good graces, Paul assured his fellow believers, can look forward to an afterlife even if they die before Judgment Day.…