“From what” is not meant as a trivial or joking question. It is legitimate and serious. Just what is Jesus able and willing to save us from and why is that help needed?
Christians are obsessed with the perfectly normal words save and salvation. When Christians use them in a religious context, however, all manner of bizarre trappings have to be understood to catch their meaning. I grew up immersed in those trappings, able to explain the concept with youthful enthusiasm. The smoke and mirrors, needless to say, subsequently subsided.
Christians and their Bible emphasize that salvation is voluntary, so there is a choice to be made by those who want it. The New Testament is even more energetic about why we need it than about how to get it. The need, I find, arises from three sources, not all of which the faithful would agree with me on.
First, our parents’ parents’ parents’ misbehavior
The first source is something none of us had anything to do with. According to a Hebrew folk tale (surely they aren’t serious about the fruit, tree, and serpent story), the need for salvation has been passed down through the generations. The earth’s first woman made a tragic error then seduced her male companion into sharing her shame. The deity who’d set all this in motion was so offended by their misbehavior that he cursed their progeny for all time (about ten billion and counting; now that’s a lot of cursing) with a genetic condition referred to with a straight face as “original sin.”
Having chosen to inflict punishment on every newborn child forever, this deity then sent his son to proclaim the schizophrenogenic message that God is good, immediately thereupon getting him killed, at least temporarily, for his trouble. (For readers unfamiliar with mid-20th century psychologese, a schizophrenogenic parent is one whose contradictory albeit unquestionable messages to a child causes psychosis.)
At any rate, everyone is in need of being saved from this divinely imposed taint—no exceptions and no amount of saintly behavior can remove the stain. In short, we are born not only bad, but so bad as to deserve unfathomable torture as punishment.
Second, our own misbehavior
This source is at least related to our own transgressions rather than someone else’s. Of course, to transgress one needs to know what the rules are. Or so it would seem. But god’s ways are not our ways. So to assume that he who devised the original sin notion to rise to the level of a moderately caring human being is not to be expected. Much of Christianity for the ensuing two millennia after Christ was convinced that humans were headed to hell even if they (a) had never heard the rules (read: too young or too distant), (b) heard them from cruel teachers not to be trusted with their lives and fortunes, much less their afterlives (read: missionary priests), or (c) were persuaded by other versions of the rules just as convincingly presented or accompanied by greater threats (read: Muslim invaders).
Interestingly, the deity had a real propensity for obscure rules that were nevertheless not to be broken. The Hebrews’ list of rules is sufficient in length and in strangeness to rival any modern tyrant or any superstitious tribe (oh, wait, we are a superstitious tribe). The vaunted Ten Commandments focus on God’s jealousy and need for unending tribute as much as on treatment of other human beings. Even those rules that do seem more of the latter turn out to be how Jews should treat Jews rather than how people universally should treat people.
Even those are a rather skimpy set of rules to live by—child abuse, slavery, and a host of bad actions are not included. Beyond the vaunted Big Ten—well, make that twenty; there was another set folks don’t seem to know about, even those who think the Ten should be on every courthouse wall—there are another 613 such mitzvot listed by the sin-taxonomist Rabbi Simlai, including such gems as not to be winking or skipping with relatives and not to wear garments made of wool and linen mixed together. I guess you had to be there.
The summary of what we need saved from and what it takes to be saved varies greatly across denominations (or their equivalent) within religions, then vary still further as you trace dogma into numerous and narrower categories. My church-of-origin taught that dancing would likely send one to hell, along with drinking, and virtually everything I thought about when a high school girl was on my mind. Even in those days Episcopalians were not nearly so fussy.
Moreover, there is no immediate feedback as to how well you are doing, somewhat like omitting interim tests in school, but facing a critical examination at the end. To be Christian is to be forever on a roulette wheel, uncertain one’s got the interpretations, behaviors, and even thoughts right! Enduring that much distressing uncertainty surely deserves salvation, but clearly the condition from which one needs to be saved is a making of the very God who will make the judgment, that is, God saves you from himself.
I am reminded of the early American preacher, Cotton Mather, holding forth with “O sinner . . . you are held over [sic] in the hand of that God, whose wrath is provoked and incensed . . . You hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it, and ready every moment to singe it, and burn it asunder…” Whew, that guy played hard ball. . . and so did Mather.
Third, God’s misbehavior
To speak of god’s sins is enough to cause apoplexy in most religious people. (At least modern Christians won’t kill me for it as Christians three centuries ago might have and Muslims would have yesterday.) What I mean is that according to the Bible God was not all that happy with creatures he created, as if Henry Ford had turned against the Model T. Maybe he used too much lust, greed, unkindness, and skepticism in the recipe. Maybe he put in too little submissiveness and fawning. However, I don’t mean to be more critical than necessary; I certainly couldn’t do as well as he out of a little dirt.
Besides, as Richard Dawkins observed with an adjectival flurry, the Hebrew God is “arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty, ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” I have read much of the Bible and have to agree, though Christians seem to think it is sinful to notice these characteristics. A role model, the Big Guy wasn’t. It takes some of the wind out of “being Godly.”
Of course, it could be said that the gentle Jesus brought a different perspective, almost as if God had once again “repented himself” as had happened before when he was regretful about something he’d done. (One is often mellowed by having a kid.) At any rate, Jesus is thought of as loving and forgiving. But that reputation overlooks the other side of the Jesus story: the institutionalization of hell, a horrid punishment that Stalin, Pol Pot, and Hitler never got even close to. I wonder how attractive Christianity might be if God were only as ethical and well-behaved as the better humans among us.
From such a God one certainly does need salvation; I get it. But it’s a conditional salvation offered cunningly by a person who’s thrown you a rope after pushing you off a cliff. A merciful God, indeed! This situation is like the salvation Jews would have needed when they were first intimidated, then hunted down and subjected to unspeakable Nazi horrors…. but salvation from the Nazis by the Nazis. If Jesus saves from that, then more power to him. But let us not pretend that “God is good” is more than a cruel joke.