Steve Chalke: The Lost Message of Jesus
Steve Chalke's latest book 'The Lost Message of Jesus' has ignited a firestorm among Bible-believing Christians because of its remarkable claims.
Steve Chalke is a high-profile Christian leader, who often has opportunities to be seen and heard in the media. He has close connections with the Evangelical Alliance and Spring Harvest. He is a charismatic and highly talented communicator.
The great debate
Because of Steve Chalke's public profile, the Evangelical Alliance arranged a public debate in response to the outcry over his book. This debate was held at the Emmanuel Centre, Marsham Street, London, on Thursday 7th October 2004. Several hundred people were present at this meeting, at which Steve Chalke and Stuart Murray Williams spoke in defence of 'The Lost Message', while Simon Gathercole and Anna Robbins spoke to refute it.
'The Lost Message of Jesus' raises three crucial issues for conservative Christian believers:
- How he describes human nature
- How he describes God and God's attitude to us
- How he describes the death of Jesus Christ
So, for example, in describing human nature, Steve Chalke says:
Jesus believed in original goodness! (page 67)
In describing God, he says:
The Bible never defines God as... anything other than love. (page 63)
... and in describing God's attitude towards people, he says:
When it comes to the God of the Bible there is only one kind of sin in the world - forgiven sin. (page 109)
At the heart of the issue is what is called the 'penal substitutionary atonement.' This is the belief that when Jesus died on the cross, God was punishing him for the sins of humankind: he paid the penalty in our place. In 'The Lost Message of Jesus,' Steve Chalke described this belief as
... a form of cosmic child abuse - a vengeful Father, punishing his Son for an offence he has not even committed. (page 182)
This is probably the statement that has most upset conservative Christians. Steve Chalke's own understanding of the death of Jesus is rather different:
And that's precisely what Jesus did when he suffered on the cross - he absorbed all the pain, all the suffering caused by the breakdown in our relationship with God and in doing so demonstrated the lengths to which a God who is love will go to restore it. (page 181)
He also says:
The truth is, the cross is a symbol of love. It is a demonstration of just how far God as Father and Jesus as his son are prepared to go to prove that love. The cross is a vivid statement of the powerlessness of love.
This may sound warm and attractive, but what does it actually mean? If the cross is just a symbol, in what sense does Jesus's death demonstrate God's love for me? What is the point of it?
In the meeting organised by the Evangelical Alliance on 7th October, Steve Chalke and Stuart Murray Williams said that penal substitutionary atonement...
- Is arrogant: it claims to be the Biblical approach
- Is repressive, because it crushes debate
- Is distorted, because it misrepresents God as being concerned with retribution
- Encourages rudeness, coercion, and judgmentalism
- Is ethically weak
- Is simplistic - it only deals with individual sin, not with structural sin
- Perpetuates the 'myth of redemptive violence'
If you deliberately looked around for all the accusations you could make which would press hostile buttons for people today, you could hardly come up with a better list. However, this has little or nothing to do with whether belief in the penal substitutionary atonement is true. These loaded accusations are simply propaganda - equivalent to the Nazis showing film clips of rats in sewers while giving a voice-over about the Jewish threat. This is not the way to carry out a serious debate about the truth or otherwise of the belief.
- Some of these accusations are simply not true
- For some of them it is not even obvious how they could be true. In what sense does belief in a particular doctrine 'crush debate,' any more than disbelief in the doctrine crushes debate? In what sense does it 'encourage coercion'?
- Some of these accusations may have some truth in them, in terms of the way people have used the doctrine of the penal substitutionary atonement
However, it is a logical flaw to say that because we do not like the results something produces, therefore the thing itself is not true. Its truth or otherwise has to be settled on different grounds. If it is untrue, then we have good reason to dismiss it. If it is true, but produces unpleasant results, then we need to look at why this happens, and how that problem may be addressed.
One of several
Steve Chalke argues that penal substitutionary atonement is just one of a number of ways that the New Testament describes the death of Christ for us. Others include, for example, the 'Christus Victor' model. The implication is that because this is just one of a number of ways, we may safely abandon it if it does not suit us, or does not fit in with today's culture.
Chalke is right to say that the New Testament describes the death of Christ in different ways. However, if we believe that the Bible is inspired by God, are we free to abandon any of these ways just because they do not suit contemporary sensibilities?
Just a metaphor?
Steve Chalke also appears to argue that penal substitution is 'only a metaphor.' Because it is only a metaphor, we can safely dismiss it. However:
- Much of our use of language is metaphorical. We can hardly dismiss anything at all on the grounds that it is 'just' a metaphor
- If we believe that the Bible is God-given, we are not free to dismiss any part of it, on any grounds at all, whether because it is a metaphor or any other ground
- It is not at all clear that the Bible is speaking metaphorically when it describes Jesus's death in terms of sacrifice, ransom, and atonement
- We use metaphors to describe underlying realities. If it could be shown that the Bible was speaking metaphorically when it describes Jesus's death in these ways, what would be the underlying reality to which the metaphors were pointing? How could we be sure that if we threw out the metaphor because it is unacceptable in contemporary society, we would not also be throwing out the reality to which it points?
How does the kingdom come?
In 'The Lost Message of Jesus,' Steve Chalke says repeatedly that Jesus's message was that the kingdom has arrived because he has come. So, for example, on page 16, he says:
My aim in the chapters that follow is to demonstrate that the core of Jesus' life-transforming, though often deeply misunderstood, message is this: The Kingdom, the in-breaking shalom of God, is available now to everyone through me.
Or again, on page 113:
To everyone who encountered him, Jesus' message was becoming inescapable: 'The Kingdom, the in-breaking shalom of God is available now to everyone through me, because I am the living temple, I am God on earth.'
It is very clear from the Gospels that Jesus did indeed see his arrival as marking the crucial breaking-in to history of God's kingdom. This was expressed in his teaching and demonstrated in his healings and exorcisms. To this extent, what Steve Chalke says is right. However, it is only part of the story: we also need to ask how Jesus saw God's kingdom breaking in through his arrival. (See, for example, the articles on this site about Jesus seeing his death as in terms of sacrifice, ransom, and atonement.) Steve Chalke has confused one part for the whole picture. He has then used this confusion to dismiss the parts of the picture that he does not want to include.
On more than one occasion, Jesus told people that their sins were forgiven (e.g. the paralysed man in Mark chapter 2 verses 1-12, and the parallels in Matthew chapter 9 verses 1-7 and Luke chapter 5 verses 17-26, the sinful woman in Luke chapter 7 verses 36-50). Obviously, these happened before his death. Steve Chalke appears to argue from this that Jesus's ability to forgive sins was not connected to his death in any way. However, this is an incredible reading of the story: with or without penal substitutionary atonement, all mainstream Christian interpretations of the Gospel message connect the forgiveness of sins with the death of Christ in some way. When Jesus declared people's sins forgiven, he was looking forward to what would be accomplished through his death on the cross. This is true whether or not you believe in penal substitutionary atonement.
Having cleared away these illegitimate moves, the remaining articles on this site about 'The Lost Message of Jesus' focus on the three core areas where Steve Chalke's understanding differs from the classic Christian position. In each case, we will seek to show that it is the classic position that truly reflects Jesus's own understanding and teaching on the subject, rather than Steve Chalke's version.
More about the 'Lost Message'
- How did Jesus view human nature?
- What does the rest of the New Testament say about human nature?
- Unforgiven sin?
- Jesus' view of judgment
- Jesus saw his death as a ransom for many
- Jesus saw his death as a sacrifice for his people
- When was the message lost?
- Summing up
For more on this vital subject, visit Pierced for Our Transgressions. Better still, read the book...