Some time ago I read and reviewed the book The Lost Message of Jesus (Zondervan, 2004). Famous for including the statement “cosmic child abuse”–with reference to the understanding of the cross as penal substitution–it caused the Evangelical Alliance to release statements clarifying their theology of the Cross. In the book, Chalke claims:
[T]he Church has time and again failed to communicate, even to understand, this greatest and deepest of all truths [that God is love]… they have universally failed to explicitly set out the sublimely simple statement found in 1 John 4:8… [the fact that God is love] has become one of the worlds best kept secrets. (p. 55-56)
He then refers to Jonathan Edward’s classic sermon Sinners in the hands of an angry God as just such a failure, as if for a preacher to proclaim that every person is held under condemnation for their actions is dishonest and thoroughly unbibilical.
He laments that:
People still believe that the Christian God is a God of power, law, judgement, hell-fire and damnation. (p. 56)
And this simply is not good news. People don’t like this message. It isn’t appealing and so it must not be right. It must be a misrepresentation of Jesus, because that’s not the Jesus I know.
People don’t want to hear that they walk in judgement, distanced from God and broken under the burden of sin. Nobody will hear Jesus if all they hear is that God holds them in contempt. Your congregation doesn’t need to know this message.
Remind them that they are loved by God, made in his image. He loves them and so holds them not in condemnation, but embraces them. The judgement they may feel is man made, not from heaven.
I think Steve Chalke will have a harder time convincing anyone of that than Jonathan Edwards, telling his listeners that they are alienated from God and held out of the flames of hell only by his grace.
You see, anyone can understand that we live in a Genesis 3 world. But rarely do people believe we were ever in Genesis 2. Rare is the hopes of the fulfilment of all their deep desires and common is regret and remorsefulness.
Dallas Green sings:
So here’s to living life miserable.
And here’s to all the lonely stories that I’ve told.
Maybe drinking wine will validate my sorrow.
Every man needs a muse and mine could be the bottle.
Maybe then I could sleep at night.
I wouldn’t lie awake until the morning light.
This is something that I’ll never control.
My nerves will be the death of me, I know.
Finally, I could hope for a better day.
No longer holding on to all the things that cloud my mind.
Maybe then the weight of the world wouldn’t seem so heavy.
But then again I’ll probably always feel this way.
Coldplay’s classic Trouble mourns:
Oh no, I see,
I spun a web, it’s tangled up with me,
And I lost my head,
The thought of all the stupid things I said,
Oh no what’s this?
A spider web, and I’m caught in the middle,
I turned to run,
The thought of all the stupid things I’ve done
The ever talented Mumford and Sons (link is explicit):
Weep for yourself, my man,
You’ll never be what is in your heart
Weep, little lion man,
You’re not as brave as you were at the start
Rate yourself and rake yourself
Take all the courage you have left
Wasted on fixing all the problems that you made in your own head
Steve Chalke wants Dallas Green to know that God suffers with him in his sadness and regret; That God empathises with the broken heart of Coldplay, tangled up in the web of bad choices; that Jesus is the one weeping for the man who will never be what he is in his heart.
But is that the real weight of this story? Does that even compound a sense of angst, that there is nothing and nobody who is fully sovereign over my shame? Maybe these musicians are more in tuned with reality than the well meaning Chalke.
I’m not convinced that Chalke’s Lost Message is the one people really want to hear. It is not the news they need.
I’m not saying the understanding of the cross he advocates is wrong, but that I think when we disbelieve in a God of judgement, our suffering suddenly becomes pointless and merely demonstrates that there is nobody in control of our universe. It only compounds grief.
If all God does is weep with the hurting and broken, then he is powerless to do anything about any of the suffering in this world.
Genesis 3 tells us that the futility with which we presently live is God’s judgement upon us. He cursed the earth, that it would not give us what we needed from it without toil.
This isn’t the make-believe rhetoric of an angry preacher. This is the reality which all people experience all the time. In fact it may even be more unbelievable that this could ever be better. The Gospel is far harder to grasp.
Is it really so unappealing to talk of God’s judgement?
Or is it the story which we already find ourselves in?
The ugly reality,
That we are sinners in the hands of an angry God.
“And now you have an extraordinary opportunity, a day wherein Christ has thrown the door of mercy wide open, and stands in calling and crying with a loud voice to poor sinners; a day wherein many are flocking to him, and pressing into the kingdom of God. Many are daily coming from the east, west, north and south; many that were very lately in the same miserable condition that you are in, are now in a happy state, with their hearts filled with love to him who has loved them, and washed them from their sins in his own blood, and rejoicing in hope of the glory of God”