How to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference

Review of Steve Chalke’s The Lost Message of Paul, part 3: atonement, hell and universalism

Enough of the pandemic, let’s get back to Steve Chalke’s book The Lost Message of Paul. Chalke is a somewhat post-evangelical leader in the UK with excellent credentials. In this book he is using the “new perspectives” on Paul that have emerged in New Testament scholarship in recent decades (Sanders, Wright, Hays, Dunn, and Bates, among other, are cited) to support his post-evangelical take on things.

Therein lie the strength and the weakness of the book. I think that a sustainable theology that carries the name “evangelical” in any sense has to get to grips with historical readings of the New Testament, but the programme needs to be carried through consistently. We need to go all the way back before we can work out how to move forward. Chalke hasn’t quite got the nerve, I fear.

We preach Christ crucified

The thought that on the cross Jesus is somehow placating God’s anger is completely foreign to Paul. Instead, armed only with the non-violent power of truth and love, Jesus opposes and defeats the anger, sin and violence of humanity and the forces of evil that sit behind them.

Chalke resumes his campaign against “cosmic child abuse” theories of the atonement. The cross, he says, commends a path of sacrifice, servanthood, humility, forgiveness, love, meekness as the means by which the destructive and oppressive powers of the world are to be overcome and humanity liberated. As Paul understood it, Jesus’ death “unmasked, disrupted and subverted the prevailing perceptions and structures of power.” Nothing to do with God punishing his Son so that he doesn’t have to punish the rest of us.

On the cross, Jesus does not placate God’s anger as he takes the punishment for sin, but rather he absorbs the consequences of all the injustice and sin in the society around him.

I disagree with this. The idea that the righteous should suffer Israel’s punishment with redemptive effect is part of Jewish thought: the suffering and chastisement of God’s servant brings Israel peace and healing (Is. 53:5); the deaths of the Maccabean martyrs were regarded as a “ransom for the sin of the nation”, the “propitiation” (hilastēriou) by which Israel was preserved (4 Macc. 17:21-22). Paul says that God put forward Jesus’ death as a “propitiation” (hilastērion) for the sins of Israel. Whether this quite amounts to placating God’s anger, I don’t know. But I think it’s clear that Paul regarded Jesus’ death as redemptive suffering because of the sins of Israel so that not all would be destroyed. The Jewish story gets us pretty close to penal substitutionary atonement, though not at all in the sense that it has been developed by Protestantism.

How we would account for the second part of Chalke’s statement, I don’t know. Does Paul really say anything that could be construed as Jesus absorbing the “consequences of all the injustice and sin in the society around him”. That sounds to me a bit like an accommodation to a modern ethos. I suspect that Paul would have seen Jesus as the victim of a much more focused historical antagonism on the part of the leadership of Israel—along the lines of Acts 13:27-28. That he was reduced to the status of a slave and suffered “death on a cross” (Phil. 2:7-8) no doubt brings the part played by Rome into view, but then we are also reminded that crucifixion stood precisely for Rome’s suppression of rebellious peoples. Jesus’ death pre-empted by 40 years the extreme violence inflicted on Israel because it had for so long failed to produce the fruit of righteousness.

An easily overlooked passage in Romans seems to me to confirm this. God desires “to show his wrath and to make known his power” but has put up with rebellious Israel (“vessels of wrath prepared for destruction”) in order to show mercy to a remnant of Jews and a growing number of Gentiles (Rom. 9:22-24). In other words, God has been waiting for some time to punish Israel but first he must save some through the “faithfulness of Jesus Christ”, whom he has put forward as a propitiation by his death for the sins of Israel (Rom. 3:21-25). So only a small section of Israel will be saved, and they can expect the Lord to “carry out the sentence against the land fully and without delay”. If the Lord had not preserved a few such as Paul, Israel would be totally destroyed, as Sodom and Gomorrah were (Rom. 9:27-29). God does not punish Jesus, but Jesus has suffered the punishment that will soon come upon the land.

The argument in Colossians 2:13-15 is that God has forgiven both Jews and Gentiles, having disarmed or stripped naked (apekdysamenos) the rulers and authorities, having publicly shamed them, and having led them in triumph, either in Jesus or in the cross (en autōi). This sounds a bit like Chalke’s definition. But the aim is to include Gentiles in that community of renewed Israel, represented pre-eminently by Paul, for whom Jesus’ death had atoning or propitiatory effect. Jesus’ death nullifies the control that the “rulers and authorities” had over these former pagans. In Ephesians, Jesus’ death removes the barrier of the Law that had until then excluded Gentiles qua Gentiles from membership of the commonwealth of Israel (Eph. 2:14-16). So we have two quite different metaphors for the forgiveness of Gentiles, neither entailing penal substitutionary atonement, which belongs to the story of Israel alone.

Hell and universalism

In chapters 16-18 Chalke treats the reader to a lively history of the afterlife from the ancient Sumerians through to John Stott, concluding with an expression of horror at Tom Wright’s grim depiction of the fate of some people who obstinately refuse to acknowledge the goodness of God, who “pass simultaneously not only beyond hope but also beyond pity.”

Does the God of love punish people with infinite, eternal torment based on decisions and actions taken in their few short years of life on earth?

This is just one of a string of questions that Chalke tosses at the salvationist paradigm in chapter 19. He claims that Paul doesn’t mention hell, and appears to think that he was a universalist of some sort, because he says in Romans that “one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people” (italics removed). “Either Paul believes that eventually ‘all’ will enjoy God’s presence because of Christ, or, if he doesn’t, he uses such misleading language to tell us so that it becomes impossible to take seriously a word of what he says anywhere else.” He thinks that Paul, the Second Temple Jew, has discovered that the “good news is not for his tribe alone; it is for the whole world, it is cosmic.”

This is too big a subject to get into here. I agree that Paul wants to say that the God of Israel is the God of the whole world, but I do no think that he expected all humanity to become part of the community of eschatological witness that would stand justified before the throne of Christ at the parousia. Chalke makes vague reference to a “theme of universal forgiveness” in the Old Testament. But the texts speak at most of the reconciliation of subjugated nations to the God of Israel in the course of history.

Paul expected every knee to bow and every tongue to confess that Jesus is Lord, but there is every reason to think that he presupposed the wider political context of this language in Isaiah 45:23: pagan peoples would renounce their impotent gods and would travel from the ends of the earth to worship and learn from the God of Israel. What is in view is the salvation not of every individual human but of the nations—as nations—that fell within the relevant historical field of the mission of the apostles to the Greek-Roman world. I don’t think there’s any doubt that Paul believed that many were “perishing” and would not have a share or inheritance in a future society that honoured Christ as Lord (eg., 1 Cor. 6:9-10; 2 Cor. 2:15-16; Phil. 1:28).

The problem with the argument for universalism, which Chalke rehearses in chapter 19 with panache, is that it gets the basic New Testament storyline wrong. It assumes that the whole point of the coming of Jesus was that humanity needs to be saved. The traditional view has been that humanity needs to be saved from eternal post-mortem torment in hell. The universalist finds it hard to believe that a good and loving God could possibly tolerate such an outcome. “What an extraordinary view of the Creator of the universe,” Chalke declares. “Why believe in a god who, in the final analysis, is morally less than even we can imagine a God of love might be?” Therefore, hell must be empty. Therefore, all people will be saved.

I would argue, however, that this is not what the New Testament is about. The problem that is solved by the faithfulness of Jesus is not the sinfulness of humanity but the sinfulness of Israel and its headlong rush down a broad road leading towards war and destruction. The solution to that problem is certainly a game changer and opens up remarkable and barely foreseen possibilities, but we stay within the narrow passage of history: Gentiles are included in saved Israel as a sign that the God of Israel is God of the nations; and the outrageous messianic conviction takes shape that the nations of the Greek-Roman world will sooner or later abandon their idols and confess the crucified messiah of Israel as Lord. In this storyline there is no hell, but there is devastating judgment and the overthrow of pagan civilisation.

What the New Testament gives us in the first place is a kingdom narrative: how does the God of Israel work through his people to establish his rule over the nations of the Greek-Roman world. Salvation is part of that narrative and a means to that end. The question of whether all humanity ever will be saved and be with God eternally arises, if at all, only on the extreme margins of New Testament thought, where it takes the uncompromising form of a judgment according to what people have done (Rev. 20:11-15).

Finally, Chalke agrees with Karl Barth that Colossians 1:19 points to a universalism grounded in Christ. I’ll have a look at this passage next.


Thanks, Andrew, for this survey and interaction.

Question: how does Chalke read the famous “Son of man came to offer his life a ransom for many” text? It seems to me that, in view of the form that the “ransom” actually took, the “payee” in view in this statement (whether prospectively in Jesus’ mind or retrospectively in the evangelist’s mind) is most reasonably taken to be “Rome”. The many who are ransomed as a result of Jesus’ crucifixion are those who manage to avoid his fate (for example by obeying his commands [to lay down the sword, flee Jerusalem at the approach of the legions, repent of the kinds of things that are likely to get one killed in Jerusalem and tossed into gei hinnom, etc.).

Another question: in this summary:

“The problem that is solved by the faithfulness of Jesus is not the sinfulness of humanity but the sinfulness of Israel and its headlong rush down a broad road leading towards war and destruction.”.

am I right to think that I perceive a “political theory of the efficacy of the Cross” in the sense of its concrete effect, at that moment in the “headling rush”, on the “war party” within Israel?


Again, thank you.

I think that the motives of traditionalist universalists are worthy; they are dismayed by the vision of God implied by the prevailing consensus (at leat within the Latin tradition churches). I suspect that when they better understand your thorough-goingly historical approach, they will find it appealing.

Thank you for your comments.

He doesn’t mention Mark 10:45.

I’m not entirely clear on the circumstances here, but Josephus tells a story about the Jews who were taken as slaves to Egypt under (I think) Ptolemy Soter, following the invasion of Syrian, Phoenicia and Judea. His son Ptolemy Philadelphus is persuaded by a close friend Aristeus to buy the freedom of the Jews from the Egyptian soldiers who had procured them. Philadephus agrees and declares, “Let the soldiers receive the ransom money (lutron) with their pay” (Jos. Ant. 12:28). So the Jews are ransomed by a payment made to an invading army, in effect.

Who knows? Perhaps Jesus knew of stories like this. Whether he had an actual recipient of the ransom in mind, however, is another matter. It seems to me unlikely. This is not Narnia.

am I right to think that I perceive a “political theory of the efficacy of the Cross” in the sense of its concrete effect, at that moment in the “headling rush”, on the “war party” within Israel?

Who would have called it a “political theory”? Are we talking about a politics of martyrdom? Do we then need to put it alongside other stories of political transformation through self-sacrifice? It becomes a big field pretty quickly. What would be the point?