Rethinking Salvation, Sin, and the Image of God

What is sin?  Does God set up guidelines for us, then require us to follow them?  Is “sin” our word for disobeying divine rules?

If so, is it fair to fault people for their sins?  If we were born into sin, can we really be blamed for messing up?  Do people with severe intellectual disabilities or addictions really “sin”?  Are they to blame when they break the rules?

How about “salvation” – what’s that all about?  If a kid breaks his parents’ rules, he might expect to be punished.  Is God a parent who keeps a record of our infractions, storing up punishments for the afterlife?  If so, salvation might be an act of forgiveness, in which our punishments are waived and we get off the hook. 

If that’s the case, how do we know when we’ve really been forgiven?  And if salvation is all about “me and Jesus,” it would be pretty easy to forget about my neighbor’s needs.  Needless to say, waiving postmortem punishments does not make violence and oppression any less awful in the here-and-now.

What is the image of God?  Maybe it’s our moral compass, which whispers God’s rules into our ears.  We tarnish the image of God when we sin; we mute the call to obedience.

So what about people with severe intellectual disabilities?  Do they lack the image of God?  What about the great villains of history like Hitler – did their repeated transgressions extinguish their internal “image of God” completely?

These are not the only ways to think of sin, salvation, and the image of God.  Consider this alternative, inspired in part by process theology:

For Christians, God is supreme goodness, the object of our devotion.  Perhaps believing that “everyone is made in the image of God” is a commitment to love and treasure others as we love and treasure God.  When we affirm the “imagio dei,” we are saying that the center of our lives (God) is inextricably linked to our neighbor; our commitment to God spills over into a commitment to everyone else.

What could “sin” mean in this context?  Sin is what happens when we don’t treat people like they were created in the image of God – when we harm ourselves and others, treating them as if they do not matter, as if they weren’t connected to God in any way.

Sin is not about breaking arbitrary, old-fashioned rules.  In fact, enforcing repressive moral codes is sin.  Sin is not about getting on God’s naughty list.  Rather, sin is wounding ourselves and others; it must be addressed in this life.  There is no need to determine who does or doesn’t deserve blame; restoration is what matters.

What would that make “salvation”?  Salvation is deliverance from sin.  A loving God must be constantly calling us towards the well-being of others and ourselves; God wants the best for us.  Salvation is what happens when we heed God’s call, making good on our promise to treat everyone as people “made in the image of God.”  Salvation is love incarnate.

Salvation is simultaneously about our relationship to God (who calls us towards love) and our relationship to our neighbors (who God calls us to love).  Loving our neighbors is not a minor add-on to our relationship with God.  The two are one.  Salvation is not a get-out-of-Hell card; it is what happens when we lovingly respond to concrete human need and God’s call to love.

Perhaps the “image of God” is a commitment on our part rather some sort of fact about human nature; perhaps “sin” is about hurting people rather than breaking rules; perhaps “salvation” is about participating in love rather than avoiding punishment.

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