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The Eternal Now by Paul Tillich


Paul Tillich is generally considered one of the century's outstanding and influential thinkers. After teaching theology and philosophy at various German universities, he came to the United States in 1933. For many years he was Professor of Philosophical Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, then University Professor at Harvard University. His books include Systematic Theology; The Courage to Be; Dynamics of Faith; Love, Power and Justice; Morality and Beyond; and Theology of Culture. Published by Charles Scribnerís Sons, New York, 1963. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Chapter 10: Salvation


Save us from the evil one.
Matthew 6:-13b


The last petition in the Lordís Prayer is known to all of us in the form: "Deliver us from evil." This form is not wrong, but it does not reach the depth of the original words which say: "Save us from the evil one," Let us meditate about them and, above all, about the one word "save."

Christianity has rightly been called a religion of salvation, and the "Christ" is another word for Him who brings salvation: the "Saviour." Salvation, saving, and Saviour are words used many times in both the Old and the New Testament, innumerable times in the church, in the works of the great theologians, in the hymns of the Christian poets, in liturgies and sermons, in solemn statements of the faith of the church, in catechisms and, most important, in personal prayers. They permeate Christian thought and life as do few other words. How, then, is it possible to speak about them in the short space of a sermon?

Perhaps it is impossible! But even so, let me say with great seriousness that it is necessary, for the words which are most used in religion are also those whose genuine meaning is almost completely lost and whose impact on the human mind is nearly negligible. Such words must be reborn, if possible; and thrown away if this is not possible, even if they are protected by a long tradition. But there is only one way to re-establish their original meaning and power, namely, to ask ourselves what these words mean for our lives; to ask whether or not they are able to communicate something infinitely important to us. This is true of all important terms of our religious language: God and the Christ, the Spirit and the church, sin and forgiveness, faith, love, and hope, Eternal Life, and the Kingdom of God. About each of them we must ask whether it is able to strike us in the depth of our being. If a word has lost this power for most of those in our time who are seriously concerned about things of ultimate significance, it should not be used again, or at least not as long as it is not reborn in its original power.

Perhaps it is still possible for the words salvation, saving, and Saviour to be saved themselves. They are profound in their original meaning, but this has been covered by the dust of the centuries and emaciated by mechanical repetition. So let us try what may be impossible, and make "salvation" the object of our thoughts in this hour.

The two translations of the seventh petition of the Lordís Prayer use two different images of what salvation is: "saving" and "delivering." The word salvation is derived from the Latin word salvus, which means heal and whole. The Saviour makes "heal and whole" what is sick and disrupted. In Greece, the healing god, Asclepius, was called the saviour. Jesus calls himself the physician who has come to the sick and not to the healthy.

But saving also means delivering, liberating, setting free. This is another image: we are in bondage. It is the evil one -- the symbol of the distorting and destroying powers in the world -- that keeps us in servitude. The saviour, then, is the conqueror of the evil one and of his powers. No one has used this image more impressively than Paul in his great song of triumph in the eighth chapter of Romans, when he says that none of the demonic powers which govern this world can separate us from the love of God.

Saving is healing from sickness and saving is delivering from servitude; and the two are the same. Let me give you an example of their unity. We consider the neurotic or psychotic person who cannot face life as sick. But if we describe his disease, we find that he is under the power of compulsions from which he cannot extricate himself. He is, as the New Testament expresses it, demonically possessed. In him, disease and servitude are the same; and we ask whether, in some degree, this is not true of all of us. In which sense, we ask, do we need healing? in which sense liberation? What should salvation mean to us?

It is certainly not, what popular imagination has made of it, escaping from hell and being received in heaven, in what is badly called "the life hereafter." The New Testament speaks of eternal life, and eternal life is not continuation of life after death. Eternal life is beyond past, present, and future: we come from it, we live in its presence, we return to it. It is never absent -- it is the divine life in which we are rooted and in which we are destined to participate in freedom -- for God alone has eternity. Man should not boast of having an immortal soul as his possession for, as the letter to Timothy says: God "alone has immortality." We are mortal like every creature, mortal with our whole being -- body and soul -- but we are also kept in the eternal life before we lived on earth, while we are living in time, and after our time has come to an end.

If it is our destiny to participate in freedom in the divine life here and now, in and above time, we can say that the "evil one" is he from whom we pray to be delivered: It is the enslaving power which prevents us from fulfilling our human destiny; it is the wall that separates us from the eternal life to which we belong; and it is the sickness of our being and that of our world caused by this separation. Salvation happens whenever the enslaving power is conquered, whenever the wall is broken through, whenever the sickness is healed. He who can do this is called the saviour. Nobody except God can do this. Those who are in chains cannot liberate themselves, and those who are sick cannot heal themselves. All liberating, all healing power comes from the other side of the wall which separates us from eternal life. Whenever it appears, it is a manifestation of eternal, divine life in our temporal and mortal existence. All liberators, all healers are sent by God; they liberate and heal through the power of the eternal given to them.

Who are these healers? Where are these saviours? The first answer is: They are here; they are you. Each of you has liberating and healing power over someone to whom you are a priest. We all are called to be priests to each other; and if priests, also physicians. And if physicians, also counselors. And if counselors, also liberators. There are innumerable degrees and kinds of saving grace. There are many people whom the evil one has enslaved so mightily that the saving power which may work through them has almost disappeared. On the other hand, there are the great saviour figures in whom large parts of mankind have experienced a lasting power of liberating and healing from generation to generation. Most of us are in between. And there is the one saviour in whom Christianity sees the saving grace without limits, the decisive victory over the demonic powers, the tearing down of the wall of guilt which separates us from the eternal, the healer who brings to light a new reality in man and his world. But if we call him the saviour we must remember that God is the saviour through him and that there are a host of liberators and healers, including ourselves, through whom the divine salvation works in all mankind. God does not leave the world at any place, in any time, without saviours -- without healing power.

But now I must repeat a question asked before. What does all this mean for our own lives? When and where do we, ourselves, experience such saving power? When and where are we liberated, healed?

It is one of the most memorable facts in the Biblical stories about Jesus that a large part of them are healing stories. There are three types: those in which people sick of body are directly healed; those in which people sick of body are forgiven and healed; and those in which people sick of mind are delivered from what was called demonic possession. It is regrettable that most preaching emphasizes the miraculous character of these stories, often using a poor, superstitious notion of miracles instead of showing the profound insight they betray into disease, health, and healing -- the inseparable unity of body and mind. They are stories of salvation, performed by Him who was called the Saviour. In them, it is visible that saving is healing. If the church had shown more understanding of this part of its message, the regrettable split between religion and medicine might never have happened. In both, the power of saving is at work. If we look at the miracles of medical and mental healing today, we must say that here the wall between eternal and perishable life is pierced at one point; that liberation from the evil one has happened in one dimension of our life; that a physician or mental helper becomes a saviour for someone. He functions, as every saviour does, as an instrument of the healing power given to nature as well as to man by the divine presence in time and space.

But there are also limits to this kind of healing and liberating. The people healed by Jesus became sick again and died. Those who were liberated from demonic compulsion might, as Jesus himself warned, relapse into more serious states of mental disease. It was a break-through of eternal life in one moment of time, as all our medical healing is.

Also, there is a second limit to the healing of body and mind: The attitude of him who is to be healed may prevent healing. Without the desire for delivery from the evil one there is no liberation; without longing for the healing power, no healing! The wall which separates us from eternal life is broken through only when we desire it, and even then only when we trust in the bearers of healing power. Trust in saviours does not mean what is called today faith-healing, which is at best psychic sanctification of oneself or someone else. But it means openness to liberation from evil, whenever we encounter the possibility of such liberation.

This openness is not always present. We may prefer disease to health, enslavement to liberty. There are many reasons for the desire not to be healed, not to be liberated. He who is weak can exercise a power over his environment, over his family and friends, which can destroy trust and love but which gives satisfaction to him who exercises this power through weakness. Many amongst us should ask ourselves whether it is not this that we unconsciously do toward husband or wife; toward children or parents; toward friends or groups. There are others who do not want liberation because it forces them to encounter reality as it is and to take upon themselves manís heaviest burden: that of making responsible decisions. This is especially true of those who are in bondage to mental disturbances. Certainly they suffer, as do those with bodily diseases, but the compensation of gaining power or escaping responsibility appears more important to them than the suffering. They cut themselves off from the saving power in reality. For them, this saving power would first of all mean opening themselves up to the desire for salvation of body or mind. But even Jesus could not do it with many -- perhaps most -- of His listeners. One could perhaps say that the first work of every healer and liberator is to break through the love of disease and enslavement in those whom He wants to save.

Now let us look at quite a different form of enslavement and liberation brought about by our finitude in this world. In contrast to much of what has been said and much of what I myself have said against technology, I want to speak for the saving power of the technical control of nature. This is a bold statement to make in a period when such control has reached a peak and, at the same time, its injurious and destructive aspects have become more manifest than ever. Every technical invention elevates man above his animal stage, liberating him from much drudgery, conquering the narrow limits of his movements in time and space, saving him from innumerable smaller and greater evils to which he is subject as a part of nature, for instance, unnecessary pain and unnecessary death. These technical innovations have a saving power, as countless people have learned who have been broken in body and mind by being suddenly deprived of them. We know the destructive possibilities in technology; we know that it can annihilate all life on earth and bring history to an end. We also know that it can keep manís spirit away from salvation in a deeper and more lasting sense. We know that it can transform man himself into a thing and a tool. Nevertheless, in the great feats of technical control we have a break-through of the eternal into the temporal; they cannot be ignored when we speak of saving power and salvation.

In the ancient world, great political leaders were called saviours. They liberated nations and groups within them from misery, enslavement, and war. This is another kind of healing, reminiscent of the words of the last book of the Bible, which says in poetic language that "the leaves of the tree of life are for the healing of the nations." How can nations be healed? One may say: They can be liberated from external conquerors or internal oppressors. But can they be healed? Can they be saved? The prophets give the answer: Nations are saved if there is a small minority, a group of people, who represent what the nation is called to be. They may be defeated, but their spirit will be a power of resistance against the evil spirits who are detrimental to the nation. The question of saving power in the nation is the question of whether there is a minority, even a small one, which is willing to resist the anxiety produced by propaganda, the conformity enforced by threat, the hatred stimulated by ignorance. The future of this country and its spiritual values is not dependent as much on atomic defense as on the influence such groups will have on the spirit in which the nation will think and act.

And this is true of mankind as a whole. Its future will be dependent on a saving group, embodied in one nation or crossing through all nations. There is saving power in mankind, but there is also the hidden will to self-destruction. It depends on every one of us which side will prevail. There is no divine promise that humanity will survive this or the next year. But it may depend on the saving power effective in you or me, whether it will survive. (It may depend on the amount of healing and liberating grace which works through any of us with respect to social justice, racial equality, and political wisdom.) Unless many of us say to ourselves: Though the saving power working in me, mankind may be saved or lost -- it will be lost.

But in order to be the bearers of saving power, we must be saved ourselves; the wall separating us from eternal life must be broken through. And here is one thing which strengthens the wall and keeps us sick and enslaved. It is our estrangement and guilt which are the impediments which keep us from reaching eternal life here and now. The judgment against us which we confirm in our conscience is the sickness unto death, the despair of life, from which we must be healed in order to say yes to life. Healed life is new life, delivered from the bondage of the evil one. Here the last two petitions of the Lordís Prayer become one petition: forgive our trespasses, and deliver us from the evil one -- this is one and the same thing. And if we call Jesus, the Christ, our saviour, then we mean that in him we see the power which heals us by accepting us and which liberates us by showing us in his being a new being -- a being in which there is reconciliation with ourselves, with our world, and with the divine Ground of our world and ourselves.

And now the last question: Who shall be saved, liberated, healed? The fourth gospel says: The world! The reunion with the eternal from which we come, from which we are separated, to which we shall return, is promised to everything that is. We are saved not as individuals, but in unity with all others and with the universe. Our own liberation does not leave the enslaved ones alone, our own healing is a part of the great healing of the world. Therefore, two other petitions of the Lordís Prayer also ask the same: Save us from the evil one, and Thy Kingdom come! This Kingdom is His creation, liberated and healed. This is what we hope for when we look from time to eternity. Deliver us -- heal us -- that is the cry of everything that is; of each of us in unity with all mankind and in unity with the whole universe. The divine answer is: I shall return to me what is separated from me because it belongs to me. I am liberating you today as I did before and will do in the future. Today, when you hear these words, "I am liberating you, I am healing you," do not resist!

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