Sorry about all the $2 words in the title. Even if that didn’t make sense, I hope the rest of the post still does.
A couple years ago I wrote a post titled “Reconciling the Crucified Messiah“, where I summarized a naturalist perspective on the origin and ascent of a religious sect that was centered around a crucified leader; which is admittedly a bizarre turn of events. That post briefly discussed the development of Christian atonement theology as a consequence of the crucifixion and how that reconciliation was critical to transforming a seemingly insurmountable setback into a hallmark of the faith. But this new atonement theology did not entail that the salvation afforded by the atonement is only available to those who believe, and so here I would like to consider another curious yet synergistic development of the Christian movement: the introduction of doxastic soteriology (doxastic = “related to belief” and soteriology = “doctrine of salvation”, so a doxastic soteriology is a doctrine in which salvation is in some sense dependent on belief). I propose that this was largely driven by eschatological concerns (i.e., related to the end of the world \ final judgment).
Despite my Christian bubble having been popped almost four years ago, it only recently occurred to me that belief in Jesus (as messiah, lord, savior, etc…) might not have been viewed as a requirement for salvation in the earliest days of the movement. A doxastic soteriology certainly doesn’t appear to have been part of the mainstream Judaism to which Christianity owes its roots and, from a naturalistic perspective, it seems highly unlikely that Jesus himself taught that people had to believe in him to be saved, despite what the Gospel of John portrays.
So what happened?
There are several points of contact which show that the Nazarenes (early Christians) shared some influences with the Qumran community (whether directly or indirectly). Among these is an eschatological perspective in which the demarcation between the elect and the damned fell not along ethnic boundaries, as was implied by traditional Judaic eschatology, but rather around ideological boundaries. To the Qumran community, the elect were those who aligned themselves with the community lifestyle and ideology. It appears that this perspective was in part driven by a perception of religio-political corruption (e.g., the “wicked priest”) and the wish to exclude undesirable religious figures from Yahweh’s kingdom – a theme that is mirrored by the gospel narratives and was quite possibly an element of Jesus’ teaching. A similar shift was also occurring throughout greater Judaism in the second temple period. Ever since the Babylonian exile, the Jews had been trying to figure out how to deal with the diaspora and cultural intermingling. The rise of decentralized worship in synagogues and the need to accommodate cross-cultural relationships spurred a decline in the traditional ethnocentric eschatology that the earlier prophets sought as they lamented the conquests of Israel. As a whole, the Judaic quest for future justice was gradually transitioning from an ethnic foundation toward ideological foundations.
Combining this with the widely accepted understanding of Jesus as an eschatological prophet, we can imagine that Jesus and his followers considered themselves to be bearers of the gospel, where the good news was not that Jesus was going to die for your sins, but rather that the end of days was imminent – perhaps even facilitated by Jesus’ prophetic ministry – and that you too could be part of the eternal kingdom if you repent and adopt the lifestyle and ideology of their sect. This message may have even neglected ethnic boundaries. From this we can see that the seeds of a doxastic soteriology were present in Jesus’ message, but were only germinating. After the crucifixion, more changes came into play.
First, we have the Nazarenes continuing to proclaim their eschatological message despite their messiah having been killed and, furthermore, cursed by Yahweh as a consequence of having been hung and left exposed on a tree (Deuteronomy 21:22-23). Though the Nazarenes appear to have wanted to remain Torah observant, their message became increasingly disagreeable and divisive as they continued to exercise midrashic liberty in defense of Jesus as messiah. As a result, the gulf between their sect and mainstream Judaism grew and they were, as a whole, steadily pushed and pulled away from participation in Jewish communities.
Then, as we consider the growing chasm between the Nazarene sect and mainstream Judaism we can turn back to the Qumran example to see what happens – namely, an eschatological evolution in which the opposing party is excluded from salvation (that is, participation in the eternal kingdom). As a close relative of Judaism, the early Christians had very few distinctions that could be used to draw that eschatological line in the sand. However, above all else, there was one thing that separated them from mainstream Judaism: belief that Jesus was the messiah. And so Christianity’s doxastic soteriology was born. As that chasm continued to grow so also did the prominence of belief as a central dogma of the Christian soteriology, reinforced by the synergistic coupling of a new atonement theology that was dependent on the object of that belief and independent of the temple sacrifices. Going one step further, the adoption of this eschatologically motivated doxastic soteriology also served to emphasize the significance of Jesus and so was perhaps instrumental in his eventual elevation as coequal with God.