Salvation History

Pilgrims pray during a pilgrimage to Walsingham (Photo: WYM)
Pilgrims pray during a pilgrimage to Walsingham (Photo: WYM)

What is Salvation History?

Salvation history is the unfolding of God’s plan to save the human race from sin and death after the Fall. This plan is the true history of the world.

How does salvation history unfold?

After the Fall, man lost his friendship with God and suffered from sin and death. Through a series of covenants, God gradually re-established a relationship with humanity and prepared the way for the coming of Jesus, the Messiah who would bring a full and final salvation to Israel and the world.

God’s covenant with Noah

After the Fall of Adam and Eve, the human race became more wicked, but one man, Noah, had won God’s favour. God told him to build an ark to preserve his family and some animals from a flood that was to punish the world. After the flood, God established a covenant with Noah, promising to preserve life until the end of time, giving us the opportunity to be saved. God’s promise to Noah was perfectly fulfilled in Christ who remains with us “to the end of time” (Mt 28:20 NJB). Noah’s ark prefigures Christ’s Church that carries the faithful to salvation.

God’s covenant with Abraham

God called Abraham to leave his own country, promising him a land, to make him a nation and to bless the whole world through him. With faith in God, Abraham settled in the Promised Land and became the father of the Jewish people. God’s promise to Abraham was perfectly fulfilled in Christ. Through him, God has established a redeemed nation, the Church, given us an everlasting homeland, heaven, and blessed all peoples.

What was God’s covenant through Moses?

Abraham’s son Isaac was the father of Jacob, whose twelve sons became the fathers of the twelve tribes of Israel. Eleven of these sons followed Joseph their brother into Egypt during a famine. These Israelites remained and grew greatly in number. Centuries later the Egyptians saw them as a threat and enslaved them. God raised up Moses to free his people, teach them his law and return them to their Promised Land. God’s work through Moses was perfectly fulfilled by Jesus, who freed us from the slavery of sin and gave the new law of grace. He founded his Church, the new Israel, on twelve apostles to bring us to our Promised Land of heaven.

What was God’s covenant with David?

The Israelites conquered their Promised Land but broke the commandments, falling into sin and crises. They became jealous of the nations around them and demanded the judge Samuel to give them a king. After the unfaithfulness of Saul, their first king, God chose David as king. God promised David that one of his descendents would reign forever. God’s promise to David was perfectly fulfilled in Jesus, Son of David and King of the New Israel, whose reign will never end.

What did the prophets promise?

David’s son Solomon built the Temple but broke the commandments. His successors divided his kingdom between north and south. In subsequent centuries the northern kingdom was destroyed. Finally, in 597 BC, Jerusalem and the southern kingdom were captured by the Babylonians who deported many of its people. Throughout this period, God sent prophets such as Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. These called the people to repentance, social justice and peace. They also prophesised: a future salvation; a new and everlasting covenant; a Messiah or Christ, ‘the anointed one’. God’s promise of salvation, made through his prophets, was perfectly fulfilled in the Kingdom proclaimed by Jesus.

Who did John the Baptist herald?

Although the people returned from Babylon, there was no new king. They remained at the mercy of the Persians, the Greeks and eventually the Romans. Finally, a last prophet appeared, John the Baptist, calling the people to repentance and to prepare for the imminent coming of the Messiah.

“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight!” Mt 3:3

Common Questions

Why does morality often appear different in the Old Testament? Why, for example, was adultery punished by death, divorce tolerated and why were certain pagan peoples killed?

These are some of the many difficult moral challenges regarding aspects of the Old Testament, which is one reason why the Old Testament has to be interpreted, not in isolation, but with reference to the rest of Scripture and Tradition.

From the Christian perspective, one response is to say that, in the long path of salvation history, different stages required different emphases. In primitive times, pagan beliefs often resembled a kind of chaotic spiritual jungle, both morally and intellectually (rather like New Age and spiritualist beliefs today). God needed the Jewish people to separate themselves clearly from the jungle, which would otherwise have choked and obliterated the ground being prepared for the coming of Christ. Hence there were strong commandments against idolatry in the Old Testament and wars against certain pagan peoples in Canaan and the surrounding area.

Another response is to say that many Old Testament laws and practices were provisional, offsetting the worst effects of sin, but being superseded with the coming of Christ. So, for example, Jesus says that divorce was tolerated by Moses, not because this was God’s original intention regarding marriage, but because the people’s hearts were ‘hardened’ (Mark 10:5).

Yes another response is to say that the harsh laws in the Old Testament, such as death for adultery, help to teach us about the seriousness of sin. When the scribes and Pharisees bring a woman to Jesus who has committed adultery, he does not contradict the Old Testament. What he says is, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her,” and then, “Go, and do not sin again” (John 8:7, 11).

The Old Testament teaches us about the seriousness of sin and helps to highlight what is radically new about Christianity: through Jesus Christ, our sins can be forgiven and we can be reconciled with God.

Finally, when reading Scripture, it must also be remembered that death, although a great evil, is not the worst evil that can befall a person. Indeed, Christianity, even after the revelation of the New Testament, recognises the legitimacy of war in extreme cases. The worst evil that can befall a person is to lose heaven. If, as has been observed, we write the ‘title page’ in this life of what we are to be in eternity, it is not how long we live, but our relationship to God that truly matters.

This article is originally from ‘CREDO: The Catholic Faith explained’ by CTS.