In Steve Chalke’s latest video, he claims that Christians holding to penal substitution believe in redemptive violence, the idea that might wins and that violence is needed for redemption. He argues that Christians who believe that Jesus had to die to bear the penalty for sin are unable to obey Jesus’ command to forgive our enemies. There’s a simple problem with this.
The problem is that all around the world, that’s exactly what Christians have been doing. Christians who sing “and on that cross where Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied” have been doing exactly what Steve Chalke says we cannot do, forgiving enemies. I know people who have been betrayed, bullied and deserted by husbands, tortured and abused by mafia type gangs and forced to flee their home countries and people who have lost loved ones to violent crime (this includes our own family, my Great Aunt died as the result of a vicious mugging 12 years ago). The strength to forgive comes from what we believe about Jesus and the Cross. Peter makes that very point in 1 Peter 2:18-25 we can bear with injustice not just surviving but responding in a holy way exactly because Jesus Christ was our substitute.
I said that there were two problems with Steve Chalke’s theology. Here’s the second one, and it’s important. Chalke replaces Penal Substitution with the idea that Jesus on the Cross in some way soaked up all the evil, sin, aggression and violence around him. The problem with that theology is that it doesn’t really work as an explanation of evil and suffering in the world.
If Jesus’ death was mean to soak up the evil, if he was drawing it into himself in some kind of Marvel Comic superhero kind of way in order to take it and dispose it somewhere else, then we have to say quite honestly that it did not work. Evil is still very much present in the World. You have to admit that Jesus failed to deal with the problem of sin.
You see, the problem with this type of theology is that it fails to recognise the “now and the not yet” of our current experience. We know that Jesus has died on the Cross and that this death deals with sin, evil, death, guilt, shame but we also know that we continue to live in a world where those things not only exist but continue to be part of the day to day experience of believers.
The alternative for Steve Chalke’s theology is to treat Christ’s death as not dealing with sin but as providing an example from how he dealt with his personal experience of encountering evil in order that we too may face evil. This then would require you and me to copy Jesus by trying to soak up evil and violence ourselves. Now how does that function pastorally? It is important to walk through carefully how such a belief would affect how we live and the advice we would give. What does it say to the rape victim, the wife who is beaten up every night by her husband, the refugee who has been brutally tortured? It tells them that they somehow have to soak up that violence into themselves. I wonder if that’s the pastoral message that Steve Chalke wishes to convey?
This type of theology follows in the “What would Jesus Do?” tradition where I as a believe try to copy him forgetting that I cannot do what he did. It requires the believer to take on and internalise the things said and done to them. A penal substitutionary pastoral approach is radically different. It tells the person that they are not being punished when they suffer and that therefore their persecutor has not “guilt hold” on them. This frees them up to rightly understand their suffering, to endure it where necessary but also to seek appropriate help and justice as well. It is in fact, Chalke’s theology that is a dangerous and unloving distorted caricature of atonement.
Penal Substitution tells me not that I have to copy Christ and soak up the violence but that I can forgive my enemies because God deals with their cruelty and injustice just as he does with mine. The penalty is paid for their evil, either at the Cross or on judgement day. Penal Substitution recognises that we live in the “now and the not yet” even though we live in the presence of sin, we are saved from its penalty so we are not punished for our own sin and from its power so that we are no longer compelled to say yes to it but can say no to temptation and yes to Christ. Penal Substitution recognises that evil isn’t so much soaked up by God like some kind of odour nutraliser as it is thrown into the lake of fire.