(This post is the first in a four part series that I've written about the emergent church, and two of it's leaders, Steve Chalke and Brian McLaren. Note that these posts, for most, are probably long and boring. If you have little interest in the "emergent church" or the effects of post-modernism on Christianity, this is your invitation to skip this and the next three posts.)
This has been an amazing year for lots of reason, and here are two more. The two fellows to my left (your right) of me are Steve Chalke and Brian McLaren. I spent a good many hours with these two blokes listening, and sometimes conversing, about the present and future of the church. It was fascinating, indeed!
Chalke, for those of you who don't know him, wrote a controversial book called "The Lost Message of Jesus". In this book, Chalke attacks the idea that the message of the atonement of Jesus Christ on the cross as serving as a penal substitution for each individual as the central message of Jesus Christ.
For those of you out there saying, "What's this "penal" thing Bucher is talking about? Did he just swear?", "penal substitutionary atonement" is the theory that the main thing that happened when Jesus died on the cross, and then was raised from the dead, was that he took the punishment you deserved for the life you lived, enabling you to escape Hell, and enter Heaven after you die. In other words, if after you die, your soul goes to court, with God as judge to determine if how you spent your life warranted either the reward of Heaven, or the punishment of Hell, because holiness is well, perfectly holy, and nobody on this earth could be perfectly holy, the result for all of us would be Hell. And even if you lived a perfectly holy life, you still wouldn't qualify for Heaven because you were born sinful. By choosing Jesus, by this reasoning, what happens in court is that you are given credit for having been to Hell by Christ, who has done it for you, and off to Heaven you go!
Chalke claims that at best, this reasoning (which starts largely with Augustine, but finds its voice in the writings of Martin Luther and John Calvin) is incomplete. Since Jesus talks so much about the "kingdom of Heaven being near" and things functioning "on earth as it is in Heaven", that there must be an earthly dimension to Jesus' teaching. Chalke posits that humans, by definition of Genesis 1, were not created sinful, but rather, good. If humanity was originally created good, and yet fell from that state by choosing between being holy and sinful, to be sinful, that Christ came to restore our basic goodness. So that life on earth would become as it was intended to be, good for all people and the created order. Thus, in Chalke's thinking, when one becomes a disciple of Jesus, one basically agrees to give up living sinfully, in terms of personal choices and how you live that out in a world that has been shaped by sin instead of righteousness. Thus, a change of behavior and values from what we have, to what Christ has, is fundamental to be a Christian, an idea and reality so important that not even death itself should scare us from living out his teaching in this world.
More fundamentally, Chalke's critique of penal substitution is that it focuses ultimately on the question of "who's in and who's out", when his reading of the Bible seems to indicate that "we're all in, we just don't all know it". That's an over-simplification of Chalke's argument, but would be close to it (I think... Chris Seay asked for a correction on this blog, so if Steve Chalke would like to respond and ask for correction that'd be fine).
Thus, for Chalke the aim of Christ's teachings aren't the eternal questions, but the earthly ones we all face each and every day: Why am I here? What am I supposed to do? What is my purpose? In Christ, Chalke claims you find the answers to these questions, and by living out the answers, you find life now, and life eternally.
Of course this has stirred up a hornet's nest among those who have made penal substitution the focus and foundation of their ministry. Their argument is that the eternal question is an important one, and seems to get left in the dust in this understanding of Jesus' atonement for humanity. Even more fundamentally, it calls into question whether or not "works" (doing good things) is necessary to get into heaven and if Chalke is a "universalist"(meaning that he believes everyone gets into Heaven, regardless of who there god is and how they lived their life.... which sound appealing until you start thinking that maybe Adolf Hitler or Idi Amin might have the suite next to yours in God's house).
So, what does this mean in terms of the ideas of salvation and Hell? For that we go to part 2.