Protestants usually present the Christian doctrine of salvation in personal terms: believe that God forgives you, honour Him and His Son, and you will go to heaven.
But St Paul saw salvation in cosmic terms, and perhaps others in the early church did too.
He knew that, according to Genesis, all the evil in the world was the divinely ordained punishment for sin. Because of their deliberate disobedience, Adam and Eve were excluded from the Garden of Eden, which was presumably a perfect creation, and from the Tree of Life, which was the eternal life of God himself. Instead they suffered pain and hardship, nature produced “thorns and thistles”, and they would die. (Gen. ch.3).
Paul also knew that throughout the rest of the Old Testament, when dreadful things happened to God’s chosen people, it was always interpreted as God’s punishment for their sin. Indeed, in Deuteronomy etc it is written that those who obey God’s commands would be rewarded, and those who disobeyed would be punished. (Study the details of the rewards and punishments: making sense of their daily experiences.) The most famous cases of national punishment, of course, were the invasions of the Assyrians and Babylonians. (Did they later see the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in AD 70 as punishment?)
So Paul, and indeed the Jews in general, saw all natural, national and personal suffering and death as punishment for sin.
Paul, steeped in Jewish tradition as a former Pharisee, was also familiar with a sacrificial system as the means of assuaging God’s wrath against sinners. It is not surprising, therefore, that he regarded the crucifixion of the perfect man Jesus as a perfect sacrifice, that would reconcile God and humanity for ever. He explains his theory clearly in Romans. For instance Rom.5:18: “just as the result of one trespass [Adam’s] was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness [Jesus’ sacrifice] was justification that brings life for all men.”
In the early chapters of Romans, Paul explains how those who know themselves forgiven, through faith, can come to enjoy the eternal life of God’s Holy Spirit. But later in the letter he expects that, thanks to Jesus’ sacrifice, the whole of creation will be redeemed. E.g. in 8:21 he writes of his “hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.”
This is where the resurrection of Jesus comes in. Paul saw the resurrection of Jesus from the dead as the first sign of God’s plan to reverse the condemnation meted out to Adam, the condemnation of all people to death. “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.” (v.22) He goes on: Jesus will return [as the promised Messiah] to put everyone and everything under his authority. “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” (v.26)
Just as Jesus was given a new resurrection body, so, Paul says, those who follow him will be given a special body, not subject to death. (vv.50-53). I Thess. 4:13-17 makes it clear that Paul believed Jesus would return within his lifetime, to establish his new kingdom on earth. In II Thess. Ch.1 he elaborates on the judgement Jesus will execute against the wicked on earth “in blazing fire with his powerful angels.” (v.7) As the years passed, and Jesus did not return, Paul seemed less certain of the time but no less certain that it would happen.
So, according to Paul, through Jesus’ “sacrifice of atonement” (Rom.3:25), those who believe that God forgives them will avoid the punishment of Adam and all sinners who lived after him, and enjoy eternal life. And just as Jesus was given a new body after death, so too will all who believe in him. This will occur when he comes again to judge both the quick and the dead, destroying the wicked and establishing a new kingdom upon earth not subject to death, suffering and decay.
This doctrine is not really credible, for several reasons.
1. Jesus has not returned as predicted. The creation continues as it always did. If God is reconciled to the world through the death of Jesus, why delay in setting up the new kingdom?
2. The doctrine of substitutionary atonement is unintelligible: it assumes a God who both hates us for our sins and would kill us for them, and a God who love us so much that he will suffer ours sins and forgive us. It also assumes that God is just, in wanting to punish the wicked, but is unjust in that he accepts the punishment of a perfectly innocent person in place of the wicked. I have offered an alternative interpretation of the cross elsewhere.
3. It is not true that those who disobey God suffer punishment in this world, and the obedient are rewarded. Often wicked people flourish, and the good suffer. Look at the fate of Jesus and his disciples, many of whom were cruelly killed. The doctrine that interprets death and suffering as punishment for sin is absolutely implausible.
I should develop an alternative theory of salvation.
Mine would focus upon the process of spiritual regeneration outlined by St Paul, but see that as driving a transformation of social relations on earth.
God’s loving Spirit is ennobling and transforming, enabling us to value people as they deserve.
If our souls survive death, I cannot imagine what form they would take, or how they would relate to one another and to God.