Salvation as Assurance Not Insurance

Disease is sometimes best diagnosed in its exaggerated or most prominent form. Jesus healed the blind to illustrate the universal predicament of blindness, which he could cure. Freud worked with severe hysterics and neurotics presuming they manifest a universal problem. They were often those wealthy enough to take the time and money to pay for diagnosis and recognition of their ailment. Today’s super-rich, likewise, display the dis-ease of the time as they have enough disposable income to address their deepest fears. The January issue of the “New Yorker” traces the movement of survivalism, from the odd ball individualists holed up in Alaska, to the super-rich among technology executives and hedge-fund managers. One of their number estimates that some 50% of this group are preparing for a potential apocalypse. These centi-millionaires and billionaires portray an exaggerated form of the universal disease. They describe the fear – or “sheer terror” – of being left without basic necessities should American culture break down. They exhibit a basic fear, which due to their vast wealth allows them to act on these fears.

Steve Huffman, the thirty-three-year-old co-founder and C.E.O. of Reddit (valued at six hundred million dollars) says, “I own a couple of motorcycles. I have a bunch of guns and ammo. Food. I figure that, with that, I can hole up in my house for some amount of time.” Antonio García Martínez, a forty-year-old former Facebook manager bought five wooded acres on an island in the Pacific and brought in generators, solar panels, and thousands of rounds of ammunition. The anonymous head of an investment firm, said, “I keep a helicopter gassed up all the time, and I have an underground bunker with an air-filtration system.” As Tim Chang, a forty-four-year-old managing director at Mayfield Fund, put it, “I’m stockpiling now on real estate to generate passive income but also to have havens to go to. Oh, my God, if there is a civil war or a giant earthquake that cleaves off part of California, we want to be ready. My current state of mind is oscillating between optimism and sheer terror.”

Part of the fear, beyond running out of basic necessities, is the additional fear that others will take their stockpiles. Marvin Liao, a former Yahoo executive who is now a partner at 500 Startups, a venture-capital firm, decided that caches of water and food were not enough. “What if someone comes and takes this?” To protect his wife and daughter, he said, “I don’t have guns, but I have a lot of other weaponry. I took classes in archery.” Others have bought ranches in New Zealand or nuclear proof bunkers, protected by armed guards, in Kansas.

What they all describe is the fear that their accumulated wealth and resources will not be enough to assure their safety. Justin Kan, who co-founded Twitch (a gaming network), indicated that what his prepping friends had in common was, “Lots of money and resources. What are the other things I can worry about and prepare for? It’s like insurance.” In the conversation of a group of centi-millionaires and a couple of billionaires most said they have planes ready to take their families to “Western ranches or homes in other countries.” One asked, “Are you taking your pilot’s family, too? And what about the maintenance guys? If revolutionaries are kicking in doors, how many of the people in your life will you have to take with you?”

As they work out their various safe-guards against the apocalypse it becomes clear that money may not buy them the safety they crave. As John D. Rockefeller of Standard Oil (America’s first billionaire) put it, “The novelty of being able to purchase anything one wants soon passes because what people most seek cannot be bought with money.” Money, in fact, seems to bring out the nature of the disease all the more. Accumulating wealth to ensure that one is not reduced to sharing with the unwashed masses describes the zero-sum game in which we are engaged. There is only so much stuff to go around – accumulating wealth to attain security describes the human pursuit. Though vast wealth may gain a bit of security, life is a limited commodity. Life is limited and this reality touches upon every aspect of the human predicament. What the billionaires describe as a lack of security may be more basic and felt in a more immediate sense as a lack of life. We may not dwell on impending apocalypse or even on our own death but lack of money and security translates to mortality. The inability to buy a ranch in New Zealand and to keep the jet engines fired up may be felt as the immediate insecurity of lacking life.

Though it is sometimes beyond articulation this lack is felt as “not being enough” or a failure to establish the self. There is also the threat of losing or being dispossessed of substance (being put to shame). This lack or fear results in the basic drives and impulses which would set us to consuming, attaining, possessing, or securing ourselves. Not only the honest pursuit of “making a living” but the murderous “taking a life” describes the fact that life is the commodity being circulated in the human economy. To put it more precisely, life is valued only as a foreclosure on or warding off of death. Life devoted to insuring that death is kept at a distance describes the universal human economy – which billionaires simply accentuate.

Christ refers to this as the drive to save the self and Freud refers to it as the death drive. Life as self-salvation describes the living death from which we need deliverance. Murderous jealousy (I Jn. 3:12), hatred, dwelling in death (I Jn. 3:14-15), and closed heartedness (I Jn. 3:17), describe the living hell constituting life in a zero-sum game. The foreigner, the stranger, the underclass, represent an immediate threat. Walls cannot be built high enough to ward off this fear. Law and order cannot get a grip on the menace as it is ultimately mental and spiritual. As Freud describes it, the ego is the “seat of anxiety.” In Lacan’s picture the very constitution of the Subject is in fear as frustration – fear is its essence. In Žižek’s description the human subject is a “symptom” of a primordial disease. In Paul’s depiction, the split “I” demonstrates how the law holds out a fullness of being – promising life (wholeness or completeness as the object cause of desire) but ending only in an agonistic struggle to the death (7.16-20). Paul describes life in the flesh as a life of slavery to fear (8.15).

Focus on going to heaven and missing hell or of “eternal security,” not only misses the deep malaise of sin, but is on the order of the insurance of the super-rich. The New Testament picture of salvation addresses this fear – not by feeding into it or presuming it is true but by addressing it at its root. The immediate lack of the sinful drive toward death is addressed in the death and resurrection of Christ. Salvation is connected to having plenty – plenty to eat in the wilderness, plenty of room in the house of God, an abundance of living water, but in each instance the lack of life in the face of death is confronted. Where the economy of sin, with its on-going depleting of resources, would presume to gain life apart from the giver and source of life, biblical salvation is focused on confronting sin as the orientation to death. Salvation is a turn from an economy built on a zero-sum (a limited supply) to a resurrection economy in which God provides eternal life. The assurance of salvation for Paul and John is not that you can be sure you will go to heaven when you die. They are describing an immediate existential assurance. It is not “once saved always saved” but something we realize in our mutual abiding and love. “If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” (Jn. 15:7, NASB).

Paul’s resolution to the fear and frustration of the ἐgὼ (ego) in Romans is life in the Spirit (8:2) in which the desire for life (grabbing and attaining life through one’s own resources or the law) is displaced by a living hope. Where desire arises through lack (lack of self), the ground of hope is life in the Spirit, which has as its goal “conformity to the image” of Christ (8:29). His image is not an object (of sight (ego)), so achieving his likeness is a dynamic process of walking as he did (8:4), of setting the mind on things of the Spirit (8:5), of active submission (8:7, 13) and patience (8:25). The hope of resurrection (8:11) displaces the static orientation to death in the acceptance of the mortal body (8:11) without slavery to fear (8:15) (or the punishing superego), for through the Spirit of sonship a direct relation to God has been opened (8:15).

Ironically the pervasive understanding of Christianity is not one which would alleviate fear but aggravate it. Rather than getting rid of the zero-sum game, divine satisfaction and penal substitution are grounded on a limited whole (formalized as limited atonement). Anselm says, “it is agreed that it was God’s plan to make up for the number of angels who had fallen, by drawing upon the human race, which he created sinless.” Anselm assumes there is only so much space in heaven (created by the fallen angels) and a measurable amount of honor, so that what one possesses, whether the self (having robbed God’s honor through denying God possession of the self) or a place in heaven, is given up by another. (Calvin, with his doctrine of penal substitution and limited atonement, is working from the same rationale.) This limited or measurable amount in an economy of exchange creates the value. In other words, the most pervasive doctrine of the atonement is built upon the zero-sum economy of sin. Throughout the book, Cur Deus Homo, Anselm describes the atonement in terms of repaying to God the honor taken from him by sin, which makes Christ’s death necessary to pay back to God that debt (created from a definitive measure). What Anselm is building towards is the necessity of Christ’s death based on the rational necessity of a limited whole.1 In Anselm’s economy of sin and salvation Christ’s death creates an excess payment on the debt (the insurance of the super-rich) insuring that some have a place in heaven.

There is a two-fold tragedy to this notion of salvation (which is the predominant understanding among both Catholics and Protestants). The cure offered by Anselm seems to prescribe the sickness. Anselm’s is the equivalent of a super-rich escape clause – yes, we are in a zero-sum game in which value is created by lack but the answer is to possess the space in heaven by the means offered in the law (the law of sin and death). Rather than suspending the immediate weight of sin and death, Anselm’s theory is something like having the jets ready to be fired up for the final escape to a distant safe-haven. In William Frazier’s description, the act itself (of killing Christ) and the death itself, to say nothing of the life of Christ, are disengaged from any immediate or practical effect in the world.2 The exchange between Christ and God is complete in and of itself as a legal exchange (debts are payed on the price of a heavenly abode). The real tragedy is that in prescribing the disease this form of Christianity misses out on the solution and diagnosis offered by the New Testament.

The language of abiding as used by John refers not to a future mansion but to an immediate intimate relation. It is on the order of a vine and branches, a family, or an intimate paternal relationship (Abba – Father). If we love the fellowship, do not close our hearts to those in need, and follow our master, not in a desperate attempt to rescue ourselves, but by laying our life down in imitation of his example, John describes an existential assurance. “We will know by this that we are of the truth, and will assure our heart before Him” (1 Jn 3:19 NASB). The economy of salvation as insurance misses the deliverance of an economy of love built on an ever-present assurance of abiding in Christ.

1 In this system humans have “taken themselves from God,” which has created their incapacity to repay God what is owed and this incapacity is synonymous with human guilt (Anselm, Cur Deus Homo, 11).

2 See William B. Frazier, “Where Mission Begins: A Foundational Probe” in International Bulletin of Missionary Research, 11, no. 4 (October 1987): 149.

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.