In a recent film version of the Superman series, there was a scene where Clark Kent (who you might remember is the undercover Superman) in speaking to the independent female reporter named Lois Lane suggested that maybe someday Superman will become her savior. She quickly fires back: “I don’t need a savior!” This remark came from a mentality and attitude born from a feminist critique of the excuses women use to avoid helping themselves instead of relying on men. But the remark was strangely puzzling to me. It struck a chord in my theological understanding. We call Jesus our Savior and our Redeemer. Lois Lane’s disdain for this passive, helpless way of understanding her role in life made me think of modern man’s preference for self-reliance as a mode of active being. To be passive is generally regarded in our modern way of looking at things as to be tantamount to being a victim. Nobody wants to wait for a savior to get them out of difficulties. This led me to ask whether Jesus has lost his Redeemer and Savior status in our faith because we think we can do it all by ourselves.
Why do we need a savior if we seem to be able to solve our own problems? Why can’t we extend this to the spiritual and religious sphere?
This actually became a heresy in the early church. It was called Pelagianism. St. Augustine fought tooth and nail against this. The Pelagians said that we don’t need Christ since we have all the God-given capacities and virtues to be able to live our own life and solve our own problems.
Augustine kept pounding away at this understanding since it undercut the need for Christ in our lives. This heresy has come back again and again in our history. Today, we are awash in hundreds of self-help books that purport to give us the tools to better our own lives. Do we need a savior?
This brings up another question: what are we being saved from?
In previous generations, that answer was very simple: hell. Jesus saves us from hell through His gratuitous grace which pardons our sinfulness. Theology in the modern world has, unfortunately or fortunately, thrown out hell. In the contemporary way of thinking, we are all going to heaven since God is love. So why worry, and what is this Jesus for anyway? Better to believe in an all-powerful genderless spirit or, better yet, just believe in yourself! And so, out goes the need for Jesus except as a benevolent non-violent teacher like Gandhi or the Buddha!
But this is not Christianity. Building on the foundation of the call of the Chosen People, Christians believe that God created the world and human beings as good. But humankind freely and tragically chose to follow their own plans and ruptured the deeply beneficial plan of God. We chose the evil path. That path ends in mutual destruction both in this life and in the life to come. The stakes are high, and humankind simply does not have the resources to save itself from this horrible landslide of evil. We need a savior who is divine yet one of us as well. This is Jesus our Savior and Lord and Redeemer. Son of God and Son of Mary.
This presupposes that we believe that destruction is possible. That is a no-brainer when we think about the destructive realities in our world—just look at the newspapers! But what about hell? Hell is seen as something willed by God. Why would God do that? He is love, or so the Scriptures say! This is a great and important question.
Hell is a necessity once you give human beings freedom. There has to be an alternative to life with God. People have to be free to choose life without God. We do that by our refusal to make the decision to believe in Him and His Torah, His Gospel, His Teaching. We choose against God when we hurt others (sometimes by just refusing to help the millions who suffer each day due to our callous neglect). If you do it to the least of my brethren, you did it to me. So, in justice and in respect to our freedom there must be an alternative to Heaven. That place or state is hell. Now we have to be careful and not identify hell with the torture chambers of the imaginations of artists and mystics: To be without God is indeed horrible and the worst that can happen to us. So, the artists talk about flames and agony. When I think of hell, I think of a waiting room filled with obnoxious and self-centered people—a no man’s land of emptiness and lack of love or appreciation or care. To be there forever waiting for nothing that will ever come. This is what we choose when we refuse the love of God. While God, still merciful, does not annihilate us out of existence, He gives us what we ask for: a world without love. God is not only Love but God is Justice—giving us what we ask for.
Jesus is our Savior from this world, but we have to choose Him and make Him Lord and Redeemer of my life with all the rules and regulations that this implies. To refuse is to choose that eternal waiting room called hell.