Images of Salvation: Have we allowed their variety to work on us?
Dennis Hamm, S.J., Creighton University, Omaha, NE

In the Old Testament salvation is mainly God’s rescue from enemies, from exile, and for outreach to the nations. In the New Testament salvation is extended to include the transcendent rescue of union with God. Perhaps the most dramatic and important symbol of transcendent salvation is the physical rescue of the healing and deliverances of Jesus’ ministry and that of the post-Pentecost church. This association is facilitated by the fact that the Greek words for “save” and “salvation” range in meaning from physical rescue to eschatological salvation. Thus, when Peter addresses the Jerusalem leaders regarding the healing of the man born lame, he says that the man has been “saved [physically] in the name of Jesus Christ” and that “there is no salvation [eschatologically] through anyone else.”

According to Joseph Fitzmyer, in his NJBC article on “Pauline Theology,” Paul uses at least ten images to describe “the effects of the Christ-event”: justification, salvation, reconciliation, expiation, redemption, freedom, sanctification, transformation, new creation, and glorification. This is a list of abstract concepts that are actually conveyed by more concrete images. For example, the concept of redemption is conveyed by the image of someone purchasing a slave to liberate him or her. What animates human understanding and consequent behavior is not so much the concept but the concrete image

A striking example is the little noticed image of citizenship in the empire of Jesus in Paul’s letters. Writing to the Christians in the Roman colonia of Philippi, a population very conscious of living according to the laws of the city of Rome, Paul says, “Conduct yourselves [politeuesthe] in a way worthy of the gospel of Christ . . .” The rare verb he uses here — politeuomai — denotes behavior with respect to one’s society or commonwealth. The reason for that image becomes clear when we read in Phil 3:20: “But our citizenship [politeuma] is in heaven, and from it we also await a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” The Philippians honored the Emperor as kyrios (“Lord”) and sōtēr (savior); and they hoped he would someday make a parousia (“visit”) to Philippi. Paul reminds the Philippian Christians that our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we also await a parousia and a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. Although Paul rarely elaborates “kingdom of God,” it is implied in his use of imperial allusions. Jesus is emperor of another kingdom that is an alternative to the reign of any Caesar.

From Gustavo Gutierrez:

With the Exodus a new age has struck for humanity: redemption from misery ... The work of Christ forms a part of this movement and brings it to complete fulfillment.

Man is the crown and center of the work of creation and is called to continue it through his labor. ... When we assert that man fulfills himself by continuing the work of creation by means of his labor, we are saying that he places himself, by this very fact, within an all-embracing salvific process.

Is this really a true dilemma: either spiritual redemption or temporal redemption?... [This dilemma] is characterized by a kind of Western dualistic thought (matter-spirit), foreign to the Biblical mentality. ... This is a disincarnate “spiritual[ity],” scornfully superior to all earthly realities.

Salvation embraces all men and the whole man [sic]; ... the struggle for a just society is in its own right very much a part of salvation history.

Gustavo Guierrez, A Theology of Liberation (Orbis books, 1973) 158, 166, 168


1. Images are most important in spirituality while dogmatics deals mainly with concepts. What are your favorite images of God, Jesus, rebirth, salvation?
2. In your work and teaching, wich are your favorite images of salvation (justification, reconciliation, expiation, redemption, freedom, sanctification, transformation, new creation, etc. )?
3. What image(s) of salvation would you like your pastor or bishops to develop at length in a homily? What would be your outline for such a presentation?
4. What are you/we saved from? (leading to our next discussion: what happened to sin?) Is salvation mainly "salvation from (the past)" or is it "salvation for (the future)?"