Debate focuses on Justice, God's wrath and the Atonement

By Robert McGovern and Tim Nafziger

If you'd like to share your own perspective on the debate we'd love to hear it. Just go to the Lost Message of Jesus Debate discussion forum.

It's not every Wednesday evening that you find a thousand Christians together, passionately debating theological concepts, but the 7th of October was one of those evenings. The Emmanuel Christian Centre was nearly filled for a debate on Steve Chalke's The Lost Message of Jesus, sponsored by the Evangelical Alliance.

The main thrust of Chalke's book is that the radical messages of Jesus have been lost over the years. While it is wide-ranging in its examination of Jesus' message, it is Chalke's views on atonement that has caused the most controversy. In chapter 10, Chalke looks at the message and meaning of the cross and indirectly discusses penal substitution, or the idea that the purpose of Jesus' death was to placate a wrathful God who can only be satisfied by the sacrifice of his own son.

The evening was an attempt by the Evangelical Alliance to respond to the controversy in a constructive way, by bringing both sides of the controversy together for a conversation. The evening was divided into two halves. The first half was a panel presenting their cases for and against. On that panel were Rvd Steve Chalke and his secondary Dr Stuart Murray Williams. On the opposing side it was Dr Simon Gathercol, seconded by Rev Dr Anna Robbins. The second half of the debate was a chance for people from the floor to ask questions which had been submitted on paper between the halves.

Chalke opened the evening by emphasizing that The Lost Message of Jesus was not just about atonement, the issue that his critics have most seized on, but also about rediscovering Jesus' call to radical discipleship and peace. He admitted that his book had gaps as it was not meant to be an academic or even theological book. “I wrote this book for those who don't know Christ yet,” he said, “We [Christians] are considered to be guilt-inducing and judgemental.” Our focus on penal substitution is part of that problem, he said.

By focusing simply on God's wrath and appeasement through the cross we paint a distorted picture of Gods character. We portray him as a someone bent on retribution rather than someone who loves us deeply but who is upset by our actions. Furthermore, Chalke said, penal substitution perpetuates the myth of redemptive violence.

Chalke clarified that he does believe in substitutionary atonement on the cross but not penal substitution. He also outlined the notion of Christus Victor which sees Christ's life, death and resurrection all together as victory over the powers of evil, both spiritual and earthly.

Gathercol responded with an assessment of a number of areas. First he felt that the book was too one sided and needed more balanced discussion. He said that Chalke's renderings of the Gospel made the future life a pale second best to now. “My concern with Steve's view is that it has very little to do with saving us for eternity,” said Gathercol, “[Jesus] does talk a heck of a lot about the final judgement.”

Responding to Chalke's critique of penal substitution, Gathercol made the point that it was Father and Son working in unison undertaking to bear weight of sin that we alone cannot. He suggested that it was not a unilateral decision on God's part to have Jesus go to the cross. He quoted on Mark 10:45 and said that the story of Jesus and the cross are biblical and inspiring and that Jesus is paying a ransom for us, arguing that you cannot simply get rid of a doctrine just because it was badly treated by some.

Gathercol echoed the concerns of many Evangelicals when he suggested that Chalke relativizes Jesus' message too much. “Steve has gone to town on what sounds good in our context,” he said. “Jesus anticipated that people weren't always going to lap up the message.” He went on to argue that the book is a serious revision of Jesus' message that does not fit with the picture of the “rescue mission” that is portrayed in John 3:16.

Chalke responded to Gathercol's criticism by saying that his message was not simpy “God loves you so take it easy.” However, at the other extreme he called on the church not to reduce Jesus' message to the “sinner's prayer” as a key to heaven. “In the end, if you believe in penal substitution, the cross is not primarily about God's love, but about God's anger,” he said.

Murray Williams opened his statement with a review of the early history of the church, noting that the early Christians had no real theories of atonement and it was only when they became associated with Constantine that they began to create theories of atonement. Until then, the focus of Christianity was on Jesus as an example and a teacher, not as a sacrifice. Murray Williams noted than many of the early teachings of Jesus became troublesome to a church that was becoming powerful, wealthy and had to look after an empire. Ideas like "love thy neighbour" took on a personal aspect but had to be "forgotten" on national levels. In the Nicene creed, Murray Williams pointed out, Jesus' influence has been reduced to his birth and death, leaving out the importance of his life. He outlined his six main problems with the penal substitution model. (see Murray Williams' statement for more details)

Robbins also echoed fears of cultural relativism and criticized what she described as the rebranding of atonement. She cautioned that this could lead to a Christ of human creation in the misguided attempt to fit in with the “Spirit of the Age.” She also said that it is important the penal substitution is rightly understood and pointed to J.K Mosely's work in 1915.

God demanded justice, Robbins said, but he also provided a way that justice could be met. “He must see a penalty exacted for sin,” Robbins said, “Otherwise, justice is not done.” She went on to argue that penal substitution is essential to a Christian social ethic because, she said, “It allows us to be able to love even when we can't on our own strength.”

All but one of the ten question from the floor clearly disagreed with Chalke. Many challenged him with verses about God's wrath, his punishment, fear of God and penal substitution. The questions did not reflect a sympathetic viewpoint, which judging by the audience, was also present.

Joel Edwards ending the evening by affirming the commitment of the Evangelical alliance to the penal subsitution model of atonement, despite what appears to be a commitment only to "subsitutionary atonement" in its official literature.

Photos courtesy of the Evangelical Alliance