Rashkolnikov's Question and the Reality of Salvation

Feast of St Myron the Martyr of Cyzicus

IN DOSTOEVSKY'S classic novel, Crime and Punishment, Rashkolnikov’s meeting with Sonia leads him to believe that the girl is quite feeble-minded. He believes that her belief in miracles and in God is an indication of insanity. Rashkolnikov prods her, “So you pray a lot to God, Sonia?” Sonia is silent, then quickly responds, “What should I be without God?” Rashkolnikov’s suspicions are confirmed: “She’s mad all right!” he thinks. But it is the next question which probes the deepest, the question which is at once the most wonderful and the most tortuous for every Christian, or for any theist: “And what does God do for you?” This is the question of reality, the reality of salvation.

Salvation. Certainly some religious words are so overused that their very usefulness seems often to be at an end. So it seems with ‘salvation’. But some words perhaps become overused because they are so pregnant with meaning for authentic human existence. ‘Salvation’ is one of these. For Christians, it means that their religion is a religion of God’s intervention into the human predicament. But how can we speak of salvation in a ‘secular’ age, a ‘world come of age’, when the human predicament cries out, not for a plethora of religious ‘doublespeak’, but for reality, the presence of salvation – the presence of God?

The question of the reality of salvation can be examined in many different ways. One can understand ‘reality’ according to a definition, as “genuineness, or correspondence between what the thing appears or pretends to be and what it is” (Webster’s Dictionary of Synonyms). But where do we look for the reality, i.e., the genuineness, of salvation in the world today? In the movement of history? Religious experience? Or maybe political progress?

But this is more than a question which can be satisfied with an academic definition. It is a question which coincides with my own theological and spiritual pilgrimage. I am a child of the ‘Jesus movement’ of the 1970s, the movement among young people, mostly ‘counter-culture’, which exhibited a great deal of excitement about the work of God in our midst. And no wonder! For the first few years, we could visibly see the working of God in the many people who had conversion experiences and in the general spiritual excitement that we felt. But, as in all periods of spiritual revival in church history, the time came when the dramatic and the exciting was not so common. Where is the reality of salvation when one comes down from the mountain of the spiritual ‘high’ and has to take up once again the mundane existence of the nine-to-five job?

The question of the reality of salvation does not simply rise from the mundane, however, but also from the tragic of life. The nation is still recovering from seeing the graphic spectacle of the crew members of the space shuttle Challenger destroyed in an instant on their take off from Cape Canaveral. In an age that goes to extraordinary lengths to deny the reality of death, the scene of this tragedy has brought home the reality of death to an entire nation, and an entire world. How can Christians speak of the reality of salvation in such a world as this? The cerebral palsied man, who visits the seminary campus almost every day, cries out for a friend who will accept him in his tragedy, despite his obvious humiliation. Where is the reality of salvation in the world? The endless enormity of human tragedy cries out: The couple whose four-year old daughter dies suddenly, just as she was learning about Jesus in Sunday school; not to mention the millions of un-born infants who never had a chance at life because of the practice of abortion, and the poor of the world who have never known a day in their lives without hunger. The list goes on interminably and almost unbearably. Is the Christian message of salvation a cruel joke for such a world as ours? In a sense, what we have here is the inverse of the problem of evil: Where is the reality of salvation to be found? Where do we find the reality of salvation in such a world?

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We hasten to add that such a question cannot be answered, at least not by this writer, if by anyone else. But it has to be faced. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one individual Christian who, in his own way, and in his own historical situation, wrestled with the problem of the reality of salvation. Bonhoeffer had to face the question in light of the nightmare of National Socialism. In one of his last works, the never-completed Ethics, he discussed “The Concept of Reality” in regards to ethics, but in a radical, Christian sense. Bonhoeffer distanced himself from the traditional questions of ethics – “How can I be good?” and “How can I do good?” – and instead asked the question, “What is the will of God?” (Macmillan, 1965, p. 188). Bonhoeffer stated the problem boldly:

If the ethical problem presents itself essentially in the form of enquiries about one’s own being good and doing good, this means that it has already been decided that it is the self and the world which are the ultimate reality. (Ibid.)

This is very different from the Christian position, according to Bonhoeffer, which is that the ultimate reality is “the reality of God, the Creator, Reconciler, and Redeemer” (Ibid.). Without God, all data, laws, and standards become ‘abstract’, for God is not an ‘idea’, and to say that the ultimate reality is God is not to say that God is “the religious rounding-off of a profane conception of the universe. It is the acceptance in faith of God’s showing forth of Himself, the acceptance of His revelation” (Ibid., p. 189).

But God as the ultimate reality is not to be separated from the world and the self, according to Bonhoeffer. The ethical question of the good is understood in terms of the real:

Good is the real itself. It is not the real in the abstract, the real which is detached from the reality of God, but the real which possesses reality only in God (Ibid., p. 190).

The Incarnation, the Word made flesh, makes it possible to speak of “the possibility of partaking in the reality of God and in the reality of the world, but not in the one without the other” (Ibid., p. 195). This is where Bonhoeffer provides a direction for us concerning the problem of the reality of salvation. The reality of salvation is not to be found in the self or the world, but only in God. But, for the Christian, God is known only in human form, in Jesus Christ. The Incarnation enables us to confess both God as the ultimate reality, and the world that the Word has entered as significant. To participate in the reality of God’s self-revelation means “that I never experience the reality of God without the reality of the world or the reality of the world without the reality of God” (Ibid.). But in what way are we to understand how the Incarnation relates to our world or, indeed, to our humanity?

Jesus Christ as true human being. Confessed by the church for centuries, the implications of the humanity of Christ for salvation have often been reduced to His adequacy as a victim in order to satisfy the wrath of God, or simply as a noble, moral example of what it means to be a good person. There are indications even in the New Testament of those who literally denied the humanity of Christ (1 Jn. 4.2-3). But even when the church has confessed the humanity of Christ, its confession has often remained in word alone. The Scottish poet Edwin Muir observed that in the Church of Scotland in his day “nothing told me that Christ was born in the flesh and had lived on the earth” (An Autobiography, p. 277ff.). The coldness of the practical Christology of his day originated, in his opinion, in ‘King Calvin’ and his ‘iron pen’. Through Calvin’s influence in Scotland, “the Word made flesh is made word again.” In the same poem, Muir predicts the end result of such a Christology:

The fleshless word, growing, will bring us down, Pagan and Christian man alike will fall…. Abstract calamity, save for those who can build their cold empire on the abstract man (Collected Poems, p. 228).

While Muir’s view of Calvin’s doctrine of the humanity of Christ as ‘abstract man’ is surely a caricature (one need think only of Calvin’s emphasis on the ‘vivifying flesh’ of Christ in the Lord’s Supper), the practical phenomenon which he is describing has not been a rare occurrence in church history. The radical implications of the humanity of Christ are seldom seen in some quarters.

Resources in the history of Christian thought certainly exist for considering the radical implications of the humanity of Christ. Luther’s statement that we can never draw God’s Son deep enough into our own flesh, our own humanity, readily comes to mind. As Otto Weber states, great significance is to be found in the self-disclosure of God as a human being, rather than simply as an ‘idea’. Therefore, theology is not simply a study of ‘content’ about God, but reflection upon God Himself, in His self-revelation (Weber, Foundations of Dogmatics, Vol. 1, pp. 177-78). So also, ethics is integrally related to dogmatics, according to Weber, because the Word was made flesh. The personal nature of God’s self-revelation is not abstract but intensely practical (Ibid., p. 68). More recently, Ray S. Anderson has explored the implications of the humanity of Christ as the place of the transcendence of God, where God’s transcendence is made manifest even in the hiddenness of human flesh (Historical Transcendence and the Reality of God, pp. 139-45).

The implications of the humanity of Christ are certainly endless, but there is one strain in the history of Christian thought which we would like to propose as having particular significance for our question of the reality of salvation. It has been particularly emphasized in dramatic new ways in recent years by the Scottish theologian, Thomas F. Torrance, in his doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Christ. In this view, not only is the atonement accomplished by Christ’s vicarious death, but also the very essence of salvation includes the vicarious nature of the entire humanity of Christ. This is the humanity that becomes the basis for a renewed and restored humanity. Our proposal is that Torrance’s doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Christ develops Bonhoeffer’s basic insights into God as the ultimate reality and how God as the ultimate reality relates to the reality of the world. Therefore, we are to look for the reality of salvation in God Himself, not God in the abstract, but God in the totality of our humanity, as seen in Jesus Christ. There we find the reality of salvation; there we find our hope in a world of tragedy and sorrow.


The locus of the vicarious humanity of Christ is found in the church, the body of Christ. But this is true only as the church becomes ‘displaced’ by the humanity of ‘the Judge judged in our place’ (Karl Barth) and ‘restored’ as the church becomes ‘the Community of the last Adam’. The character of this community is not found in itself, but in God, through the lordship of the Spirit (‘the community of the Spirit’) and, then, through the fruit of concrete, often unspectacular, acts of faith, love and hope in the world (‘the community of faith, hope, and love’). In all of this, Rashkolnikov’s question, the question of every atheist and agnostic, is never far behind: “And what does God do for you?” – the question of the reality of salvation.

*Excerpted from the Preface to The Vicarious Humanity of Christ and the Reality of Salvation (New York: University Press of America, 1991), 1-7; this work is the published version of Dr. Kettler's 1986 PhD dissertation, reprinted in 2011 by Wipf & Stock publishers. Available for purchase from Eighth Day Books...give them a call at 1.800.841.2541.

Christian D. Kettler is Professor of Theology and Religion at Friends University. He is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and preaches regularly at the Church of the Savior. He lives in Wichita, KS and is owned by two Siamese cats, Linus and Lucy.

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