Paul’s Soteriology: Sophisticated, Influential, & Overlooked

There does not exist a synoptic Gospel named after Paul, yet his teachings have trickled down into the Christian consciousness, especially the Protestant consciousness, arguably greater than any other of the apostles. 

But what sets Paul apart? Why has he taken such a predominance over doctrine? John MacArthur describes as much in an article based on his book The Gospel According to Paul that, “Whether we look at the sermons of Paul, or in his letters, we see a consistent focus on Jesus Christ.” I think this takeaway by Pastor MacArthur means far more than an initial glance would have it seem. Paul’s consistent focus on Jesus helps him develop a soteriology uniquely fit around the death and resurrection of the man, Jesus.

To Paul, the Gospel and the law are one in the same, that accepting Jesus as the Son of God is the sole way to eternal life; ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith’” (Romans 1:16–17, NRSV). This equation of the two negates the old law of Moses, and replaces it with a fulfilling covenant of Christ’s sacrifice. Yet, commonly overlooked is the true miraculousness of this sacrifice. Christ, a man, descended into sheol and conquered it, so we may be able to do the same through him. 

Because of the confusion surrounding the nature of hell, sheol, and hades, we often incorrectly associate sheol with hell – thus drawing to mind a Dantian conception of a multi-faceted inferno. A good example of this confusion can be found in the Orthodox & Catholic Churches, who celebrate the holiday ‘Harrowing of Hades’ on the liturgical calendar to commemorate Jesus descending into “hell”.

Adopted by many Restorationists has been a view of sheol as being not a hellscape, but the literal state of nonexistent death – an intermediate similar to purgatory but completely unconscious. In other words, as the Bible describes it, “the sleep of the dead”. Much like in the way we teleport from one conscious time to another during sleep, so too will we in death until judgement. For many this may be a quite unorthodox perspective, so below I have listed numerous verses to cross-reference so you may decide for yourself the consistency of a metaphoric sleep to death: 

(via Restitutio)

  • 1 Kings 2.10 David slept with his fathers
  • 1 Kings 11.43 Solomon slept with his fathers
  • 1 Kings 14.20 Jeroboam slept with his fathers
  • Job 3.11-14 death is lying down, quietly in sleep, and at rest
  • Ecclesiastes 9.5-6 the dead know nothing; they are clueless about what happens under the sun
  • Ecclesiastes 9.10 no work, thought, knowledge, or wisdom in the grave (clearly teaches dead are unconscious)
  • Psalm 6.4-5 in death/the grave people have no remembrance or praise of God
  • Psalm 13.3 help me or else I’ll sleep the sleep of death
  • Psalm 115.17 the dead do not praise the LORD
  • Psalm 146.3-4 breath [ruach/spirit] departs, return to earth, plans perish
  • John 11.11-14 Jesus calls Lazarus asleep when he is dead
  • Acts 2.29, 34 David died, was buried, and did not ascend into heaven
  • Acts 7.60 Stephen cried out and then fell asleep
  • 1 Corinthians 15.6 some of the 500 who saw Jesus have fallen asleep

This teaching is absolutely integral to Paul’s philosophy backing up his soteriology. One so distant to humanity like we see from many modern doctrines would be incredibly ineffective via sermon and complicated. This is precisely why the same message found in the Old Testament is consistent in books like Acts and Corinthians (see above for reference).

Although Paul regularly adapted his message for the cultures he was visiting, “As even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring’” (Acts 17:28), he does not stray away from Judaic philosophy. Rather, he uses the philosophic cultures of other nations in support of his soteriology. In no way does Paul call upon the ideas of Aristotle or Plato to deliver a counter-doctrinal narrative. All references are delivered to expound the universality of God’s message and the applicability to even distant cultures. Thomas Aquinas and Augustine perhaps may go too far here. Albeit infrequently, the primacy of Jesus’ message over that of the Greeks is sometimes questionable by both men. Paul did not leave any room for the same confusion.

But do not mistake Paul’s Judaic philosophy for a Judaic doctrine. He quite forthrightly rejects the 613 commandments of the Torah as impossible to obtain. This message was controversial for his time and angered many, leading to the Council of Jerusalem debate (in which I have already written extensively about). It is clear from Paul’s interactions with other Apostles at the Council that they, possibly in bad faith, misinterpreted his perception of the Old Testament law to frame him as a Gentilizer. Yet, despite what opposition at his time wanted you to believe, Paul never dismisses the morality or ethics of the law. The laws of the Gospel are natural & right, written on everyone’s hearts by creation. It would not be until the Thomistics and ex-neo-Platonists like Strauss that these ideas would be rediscovered in a serious, nuanced way. Yet it was Paul who influenced both and organized these nuanced thoughts first. “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” (1 Corinthians 12:13).

Regarding the nature of the God Paul worshipped, it may come as no surprise I affirm that Paul believed in a sovereign, indivisible one. But he is not unique in this way. Many at the time did as well, Jew and Zoroastrians especially. Even pagans like Aristotle believed in an indivisible truth protected by one immovable mover. What makes Paul’s soteriology unique is that salvation is only found through faith in the human Son of God. Trinitarians may affirm Jesus as a part of the Godhead, but if they have no faith in the Son, they have no faith at all to Paul, “And immediately he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.”’ (Acts 9:20, ESV). Paul also definitely believed in the conceptually pre-existent Logos, begotten in the man Jesus – which all the Apostles affirmed and you can read more about in my article regarding it here.

The doctrine of Paul’s soteriology is forefront in the Christian tradition, and thus should be analyzed as such. It’s a shame that more often than not, biblical scholars have simplified and condensed Paul’s beliefs in to a single sentence. This does it no justice. Although easy to comprehend, it is by no means simplistic. Perhaps it is time we, as Christians, not only give Paul the overture he deserves – but also as inheritors of the great Western tradition he influenced so profoundly.