Biblical Images of Salvation

  • Jack Heppner, Author
  • Retired Educator

It has now been five or six years since I wrote a series of twenty four essays on the subject of Atonement. Upon completion of that year-long project, I was satisfied that I had done my homework as best as I could at the time. In the process I had deconstructed a lot of atonement “theories” proposed through the centuries of church history and had begun reaching for a better way of reflecting on what the biblical concept of salvation entails.

Somewhere along the way of my spiritual journey, quite early in fact, I had begun to wonder why it was that the church was propagating “theories” when talking about salvation. In high school I had learned that scientific theories, for example, were the best explanations scientists could think of to explain certain phenomena. But because they were theories, they were not etched in stone because someday a better explanation might emerge.

But in the church I noticed that one specific “theory” of atonement was mostly taught as dogma. It was said to be the true biblical understanding of salvation, whereas all the other explanations could clearly be shown to be faulty theories. The theory I am referring to is the “penal, substitutionary atonement theory.” It basically taught that God was angry at everyone in the world because of their inherited and deliberate sinfulness and that Jesus had to die on a cross go assuage the wrath of God so I could be saved and go to heaven when I died.

Not only did this teaching terrorize me as a child, but I found it an increasingly dissatisfying theory as I grew older – even though I had tentatively acquiesced to its veracity at my “conversion” as a teenager.

At the conclusion of my series of essays on atonement I noted that increasingly modern Christians were ready to abandon the notion of “theories” of atonement entirely. Instead they focused on simply mining the depths of the many and varied images and metaphors the biblical text uses to describe what Jesus was up to in relation to the salvation process. I noted at the time that “…theories usually end up becoming dogma whereas metaphors and images remain nimble and applicable in a myriad of times and places.”

I also stated at the time that “When you let the biblical text speak for itself…it does not naturally lead to one theory of atonement or another. All the metaphors, images, parables and teachings about the life, teachings and work of Jesus form a kaleidoscope of color and meaning…That was sufficient for the first century of Christian history and I suspect it should be sufficient for the 21st century as well.”

So, given this part of my story, you will understand that something stirred in my soul when, in one of the recent podcasts produced by the Seeds Church here in Altona, Pastor Ted Enns-Dyck basically agreed with what I had written years earlier. When Darlene Enns-Dyck, Ted’s wife and our co-pastor, asked him what atonement theory he subscribed to, he simply said he wasn’t sure he subscribed to any theory. He preferred, he said, to simply tell the stories of Jesus and let them speak for themselves. My heart skipped a beat!

I was first introduced to the world of biblical imagery as a teaching tool by Donald Jacobs, a long-time Mennonite missionary to Africa. He told the class that he was largely unable to touch the African “soul” in his teaching of theology until he adopted a more picturesque, image-oriented teaching method than the one found in standard theological textbooks written in North America.

Sometime later, I took a course with Erland Waltner, “The Biblicial Imagery of Ministry” which I found very refreshing. It provided insights standard systematic theology could not. And when I discovered Peter Macky’s book, “The Centrality of Metaphor to Biblical Thought: A Method for Interpreting the Bible, I was hooked!

Macky compares this type of studying to viewing a garden from various vantage points.

Imagine a misty garden which is surrounded by a high wall with small windows set in it every twenty feet or so. You move around the wall taking mental photographs of the view from each of the windows. By the time you reach your starting point the sun has dispelled some of the fog, so you make another round, gaining some perspectives you missed on the first round. Then you try to tell a friend what the garden is like base on the series of images you have seen through the wall. You realize that the view from each window is unique, contributing some special insight into the nature of the garden. Taken together, these ‘snapshots’ form a collage of splendor far surpassing the beauty of the individual images you have seen.

I like to describe this kind of project as the “diamond” approach to discovering biblical truth. Imagine holding a very expensive diamond in your hand. As you rotate it, each face of the precious stone offers its unique beauty, demonstrating its great worth. But the value of the gem will never be fully appreciated until you see the reflection of all its many faces. So it is with an image-oriented approach to biblical study. Each image offers a unique perspective of the topic being studied, in this case salvation, but it cannot reflect all there is to know about the subject. But by viewing the many word-pictures found in the Scriptures depicting various perspectives, we can gain a fuller appreciation of the nature of salvation in all its beauty.

I have a suspicion that this kind of approach to the study of salvation might get us farther along the way and closer to the truth than adhering to a favorite atonement theory.

I invite the reader to explore the images of salvation found in the New Testament – to look at snapshots from windows in a garden wall, to rotate the diamond in your hand.