Ask Alice about Catholicism
What does “salvation history” mean?

Salvation is the one big idea in the Bible. Without it you’ve got just another large dusty book from antiquity. Salvation history traces the pattern of events in human history that reveal God’s saving plan. The “Reader’s Digest” version would be something like this: God’s covenant with Abraham; Israel’s deliverance from Egypt; the giving of the Law to Moses; Israel's entry into the Promised Land; the monarchy of King David; and the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Salvation history culminates in the New Creation awaiting us at the end of time.

What we mean by salvation is another matter. The Hebrew term for it denotes “to make wide or sufficient.” Unrestricted passage is the result: liberation from obstacle or impediment. Sin constricts human possibilities and God makes them wide and free again. When we say “our God is the God who saves,” we’re saying human liberation in a sinful world is only possible through divine intervention.

Early saving events in scripture are mostly military or political. Above all they’re physical: God saves folks from tangible dangers. That sets up the expectation that the God who delivered us yesterday will rescue us tomorrow, if need be. Salvation is not a dead fact but a living proposition. In time, biblical salvation takes on a spiritual aspect as well. We need saving not only from national enemies and seraph serpents but from the consequences of our own choices. Salvation comes to imply the rescue of the whole person, body and spirit. Ultimately, what we need is to be ransomed from death—so God extends the divine rescue all the way to the tomb.

Theologians say salvation is from something and for something. We’re saved from sin and death and for eternal life with God. The opposite of being rescued, of course, is drowning, perishing, being lost. In the wilderness of human choices leading in all directions, we can appreciate how we might wander so far that the only hope of rescue is a helicopter from above dangling its rope ladder over our heads. God’s saving power arrives in human history not unlike that helicopter. Once we understand that, it’s easy to see that all of human history is salvation history—even the parts that never made it into the Bible.

• Psalm 51; Isaiah 65:17-25; Jeremiah 17:14; 31:31-34; Ezekiel 37:1-14; Luke 1:68-79; 9:24; John 3:16-21; Acts. 16:30-31; 1 Thessalonians 5:8-10

Online resources
Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium), November 21, 1964
“The Nature of Our Salvation in Christ: Salvation as Participation and Divinisation” by Damien Casey

What Are They Saying About the Universal Salvific Will of God? by Josephine Lombardi (Paulist Press, 2008)
Salvation Is from the Jews (John 4:22): Saving Grace in Judaism and Messianic Hope in Christianity by Aaron Milavec (Liturgical Press, 2007)

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Alice L. Camille
Alice Camille is a gem among contemporary writers on scripture and Catholic teaching. She has received numerous awards for her books, columns, and exegetical reflections. She received her Master of Divinity degree from the Franciscan School of Theology in Berkeley, where she also served as adjunct faculty in ministry formation, preaching and proclamation. Alice is an author, religious educator, and parish retreat leader. Learn more at

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