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A Scandalous Attack on The Cross

Category Articles
Date November 8, 2004

A public debate organised by the Evangelical Alliance took place on 7 October in Emmanuel Centre, London following strong criticism from Christians of Steve Chalke’s book, “The Lost Message of Jesus” (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003). 600 people attended, indicating the strength of feeling that the book’s message had aroused. Steve Chalke’s supporters laughed at his amusing remarks and applauded him vigorously when he had made his presentation. The two who spoke against his beliefs were Simon Gathercole, lecturer in New Testament at Aberdeen and Anna Robbins, lecturer in Theology and Contemporary Culture at the London School of Theology. Chalke was supported by Stewart Williams, chair of the Anabaptist network.

Martin Downes the UCCF team leader in Wales explains the error of Chalke’s ideas in an article in the September/October 2004 Evangelical Magazine writing as follows.

The doctrine of penal substitution affirms that on the cross Jesus exchanged places with sinners, and voluntarily bore the punishment that their sins deserved, thereby propitiating an angry God. It is a defining belief of evangelical faith, biblically warranted and central to the gospel. Why then is the Evangelical Alliance hosting a debate where penal substitution is being attacked by a well known evangelical?

What is the debate about?

Steve Chalke asks how we have ‘come to believe that at the cross this God of love suddenly decides to vent his anger and wrath on his own Son?’ (p.182). Chalke considers this to be a mockery of Jesus’ teaching about refusing to repay evil with evil and a contradiction of the statement that God is love (p.182). He insists that the cross isn’t ‘a form of cosmic child abuse – a vengeful Father, punishing his Son for an offence he has not even committed’ (p.182). Instead the cross is a symbol of love, a demonstration of how far God is willing to go to prove his love (p.182).

He claims that we have fundamentally misunderstood Jesus’ cry of dereliction, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Matt. 27:46). Rather than the sight of Jesus taking the world’s sin on Himself being unbearable for a holy God, Jesus’ feeling of abandonment ‘mirrors those of countless millions of people who suffer oppression, enslavement, abuse, disease, poverty, starvation and violence’ (p.185). Calvary wasn’t unique. For Jesus the cross became a way of sharing the experience of all who feel abandoned by God in their suffering. The reality, however, is that God is always right there with us in our suffering (p.185-6).

Steve Chalke no longer preaches penal substitution (p.184), but he still believes that preaching the cross is central. ‘On the cross Jesus took on the ideology that violence is the ultimate solution by “turning the other cheek” and refusing to return evil for evil, willingly absorbing its impact within his own body’ (p.179). The resurrection is the reversal of this, the triumph of love over hate, as the God of love takes on the powers of darkness and wins (p.l87).

In a press release Steve Chalke has said that penal substitution is ‘a theory rooted in violence and retributive notions of justice’ and is incompatible ‘at least as currently taught and understood, with any authentically Christian understanding of the character of God.’ He is unrepentant about referring to the doctrine as a version of ‘cosmic child abuse’ because ‘it is a stark “unmasking” of the violent, pre-Christian thinking behind such a theology’.

Recovering the truth about God’s character?

Chalke considers it a tragedy that Church history has obscured the centrality of God’s love. He asserts that the Bible ‘never defines God as anger, power or judgement-in fact it never defines him as anything other than love’ (p.63). Moreover, he argues, to think of God’s attributes without reference to the primary lens of his love ‘is to risk a terrible misrepresentation of his character, which in turn leads to a distortion of the gospel’ (p.63).

Even texts that speak of God’s holiness should be understood as portraying the love that makes God different rather than his sinless purity and ‘otherness’ (p.58-9). But God is described in the Bible as light (1 John 1:5) and Spirit (John 4:24). Moreover both Testaments affirm that God is a consuming fire (Deut. 4:24; Heb. 12:29), and dwells in unapproachable light (1 Tim.6:16). The sight of God’s holiness filled Isaiah with dread and made him conscious of his guilt (Isa. 6:1-5). Christians are called to holiness not impurity (1 Thess. 4:7). This confusion of God’s attributes of holiness and love is not just a basic error; it appears to be an intentional misrepresentation to serve his own agenda.

How does he reconcile the frequent occurrences of judgment in the Bible with love as God’s defining characteristic? This is his answer:

“Yahweh’s association with vengeance and violence wasn’t so much an expression of who he was but the result of his determination to be involved with his world. His unwillingness to distance himself from the people of Israel and their actions meant that at times he was implicated in the excessive acts of war that we see in some of the books of the Old Testament.” (p.49).

According to Steve Chalke the conquest of Canaan was done in God’s name but not at His command or with His consent. This is directly contrary to Deut. 7:1-2,16, 20, 22-26; 9:1-3; Jos.6:15-21; 10:40-42.

A Blatant Contradiction

All this begs the question, is it ever appropriate on this understanding of God’s love, to speak of his anger and judgment? But the following admission is telling:

“Although God is love, this doesn’t exclude the possibility of him eventually acting in judgement… if God is love, then anger is a legitimate, indeed intrinsic, expression of that love. But because God’s anger is born of pure love, it is never fickle or malicious” (p.62).

But this entirely undermines his argument. For if there is no final conflict between love and judgment, one wonders why at the cross God cannot demonstrate His anger at our sin, and, at the same time, manifest His love? Is God angry just because we reject His love or is He angry at all deviations from His nature and will? How can God forgive us and uphold His justice?

Steve Chalke is caught in a contradiction. He wants to affirm God’s anger in some sense, but is intent on redefining God’s holiness and downplaying the seriousness of sin (p. 173). Nevertheless he is right to say that anger is a legitimate expression of God’s love. Because the Lord is righteous He loves righteousness and hates the wicked (Psalm 5:4-5; 11:5, 7). The Bible speaks plainly about God’s anger against all sin being expressed in the present and at the day of judgment (Rom. 1:18ff, 2:5-11; Eph. 5:3-6).

God’s love is not a moral weakness. If sin ought to be punished then there is nothing in God that impels Him to leave it unpunished. If God loves sinners then some way must be found for His justice to be satisfied as well.

Where Wrath and Mercy Meet

Is it true that penal substitution contradicts the statement that God is love? If it is then the New Testament writers were not aware of it. Paul tells us that the God who justifies those who believe, by his grace, does so by setting forth His Son as a propitiation (Rom. 3:25). The writer to the Hebrews says that it was as a merciful High Priest that Jesus made propitiation for the sins of the people (Heb. 2:17).

The apostle John tells us that God is both light (1 John 1:5) and love (3:16). ‘In this is love’, writes John, ‘not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins’ (4:10). On the basis of this wrath-averting death Jesus acts as our advocate with the Father when we sin (2:1-2). Rather than being incompatible with love, God’s love saves sinners from His own wrath through the death of Christ (Rom. 5:8-9).

Vengeance Is Mine

By pitting Jesus’ teaching about not ‘repaying evil for evil’ against the idea of penal substitution Steve Chalke makes a basic but telling mistake. Consider Romans 12:17, 19: ‘Repay no one evil for evil… Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance Is mine, I will repay, says the Lord”‘. Retribution belongs to the righteous Judge not to private individuals. But the state is given the limited remit to punish wrongdoers, ‘For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer’ (Rom. 13:4).

Why the debate is a scandal

Let us make no mistake; this debate is due to Steve Chalke’s fame and not to the worth of his argument. His writing is logically flawed, arbitrary, reliant on emotional language, and highly selective in its use of Scripture. To brand penal substitution as ‘cosmic child abuse’ is heretical and blasphemous. This badly chosen phrase portrays God as committing unspeakable evil. We are left with no confidence in the sub-Christian Old Testament revelation or in God’s dealings with Israel. It is an embarrassment that this ill-conceived theology should be given such public prominence. Steve Chalke has dressed up old-fashioned liberalism in twenty-first century dress. He has certainly abandoned the evangelical gospel. J. Gresham Machen’s words are appropriate:

‘They (liberal preachers) speak with disgust of those who believe ‘that the blood of our Lord, shed in substitutionary death, placates an alienated deity and makes possible welcome for the returning sinner. Against the doctrine of the cross they use every weapon of caricature and vilification. Thus they pour out their scorn upon a thing so holy and so precious that in the presence of it the Christian heart melts in gratitude too deep for words. It never seems to occur to modern liberals that in deriding the Christian doctrine of the cross, they are trampling on human hearts.” (J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1923, p.120.)

Martin Downes is UCCF team leader for Wales

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