The death of Jesus Christ is the central event in Christianity and the defining event for the faith of every Christian. Everyone has surely seen countless tracts, bumper stickers, and other paraphernalia bearing the two words “Jesus saves”. Someone had even spray-painted those words on a street light near my house when I was a kid. It’s a two-word summary of the message of Christianity. The central fact of the faith of every Christian is salvation, yet not everyone knows what it means. To some outsiders, it may appear that salvation is simply a feeling, as vaguely defined and wishy-washy as any other.
To understand salvation, one must first understand sin. My pal Chesterton once called sin “a fact as practical as potatoes”. You can pick up any newspaper and see evidence of human sin. Christian dogma begins with the notion of original sin, meaning that all humans are sinners; nobody is perfect. Moreover, ordinary human beings cannot shake off our sinful nature by ordinary means, such as good behavior, repeated ritual, or anything else. No matter how hard we try, we continue to do things that we know we should not do. Hence we carry the burden of sin, the shame of what we have done wrong. This is not a vague feeling, but rather a well-defined, substantial fact within our psyche.
If the burden of sin is well-defined, then the removal of that burden of sin is well-defined. Salvation is defined as that event in which the burden of sin is removed. And all Christians, whether Catholic or Protestant or Eastern Orthodox, are in agreement about the means by which the burden of sin is removed. It was removed by the death of Jesus Christ on the cross at Calvary, as described in the gospels.
To some, that would raise the question of method. How does Jesus dying on the cross lead to the burden of sin being removed from everyone who accepts it? On this question there is not nearly as much agreement among Christians. There are different viewpoints, which anyone can study is they wish. The “Ransom” theory holds that Satan had a just claim on human souls because of our sinfulness, and that Christ’s sacrifice paid what was due, thereby eliminating the claim. The “Penal Substitution” theory holds that intrinsically there must be a punishment for any person’s wrongdoing before the burden of that sin can be removed, and that the punishment which the rest of us deserve was instead applied to Christ. There are others as well, and plenty of theologians willing to debate them, but most Christians acknowledge an element of divine mystery in the event of salvation via Christ’s death.
One thing should be born in mind, though. There are many types of sins, in other words many ways in which human beings hurt each other. Sometimes we inflict physical harm on each other, other times emotional harm, other times we neglect to help people in need. During the twenty-four hours leading up to his death, Jesus suffered the following: his disciples falling asleep when he needed them; fear about the future so intense it lead to physical anguish; arrest; mob violence; a show trial that made a farce of the justice system; popular hatred; abuse by authorities; physical torture of several kinds; defilement with bodily fluids (spitting); mockery of his situation, his claims, and his social status; abandonment by his own followers; being paraded in front of a large crowd; being stripped almost naked; having his last possessions taken away; and finally being subjected to an extraordinarily painful and humiliating form of execution. In that sense, it is reasonable to say that Jesus understood the suffering caused by sin–all of it–in a way far beyond anything that any of us could.