When I was a teenager, a young trainee pastor at Bible college came to lead a youth weekend at our church. The main thing that I remember is that he talked about sex, and it was one of the few youth weekends I attended that was not boring. His name was Steve Chalke.
Several years later, I heard of Steve Chalke again when he set up a charity, aimed at helping homeless people, which morphed (the charity, not the homeless people) into Oasis Trust. I was therefore interested when recently, during dinner with a friend, they mentioned that Steve Chalke had been ‘thrown out’ of the Evangelical Alliance. Was such a thing even possible? I had (wrongly) assumed that the Evangelical Alliance was a union for anyone who called themselves a Christian, a place to share ideas and resources, and which organised events which might prove helpful to said Christians. I had not realised it was possible to either ‘belong’ or be ‘thrown out’. What, I wondered, had SC done which merited being thrown out of this esteemed organisation? Had he murdered someone, eaten babies, kicked a dog? No! He had, apparently, become a heretic.
I heard a few whispers about the apparent downfall of SC. I heard that he had turned his back on evangelical Christianity, that he questioned the crucifixion, and even went as far as to call the death of Jesus “child abuse”. I wondered if I was hearing things properly. Searches online were varied, and it was hard to find the truth. I decided to buy his book, The Lost Message of Paul, and decide for myself.
The book is, to be honest, challenging. It begins with an introduction, when SC explains that he is rethinking his faith, and says he is hoping for an informed debate. It seems somewhat ironic to me that the reaction of established Christianity is simply to rebrand Chalke as a heretic and to exclude him from the Evangelical Alliance—but perhaps the debate happened before I was aware of this, and there were other reasons for his exclusion. I again checked online, but he is still the pastor of a church, still working amongst some of the neediest people in our society. I listened to an online interview, and he was still saying that he believes in one God, still believes in the death and resurrection of Jesus, so what is the reason for his exclusion? Maybe he really did eat a baby.
The book gave some insight as to why people find his ideas difficult—I find them difficult myself. The book basically gives good insight into the culture in which the Bible books were first written, and then questions whether we have properly interpreted what the words are saying. My understanding is that SC now questions whether the idea of ‘original sin’ is correct (the idea that when man sinned in the story of Genesis, that sin was then passed down to every person in every generation that followed, hence separating them from God). He makes the point that Genesis is a Jewish book, written in Hebrew, and yet Christians never ask Jews today what their understanding is, we never think about what the words would have meant in Hebrew.
Much of his explanations are very interesting—did you know that in Hebrew, you cannot have a word for an emotion? So, when it talks about God’s anger, it actually talks about God’s nose, because when you’re angry you snort through your nose? But that word could also be translated as passion, or fury, or great sadness?
I felt that SC’s views here (if I was understanding them correctly) were flawed. I never taught any of my children to do wrong, and yet they all did, so my experience suggests that people are born ‘sinful’ and the rest of the Bible seems to support this. If we are all ‘sinful’ then how can we approach God, who has no sin? Surely before we can approach, we need to be washed, there needs to be some kind of repentance? But his argument is persuasive, it cannot easily be dismissed, and gives pause for thought. (Or, of course, you could just chuck him out of your club.)
SC also builds a case for refuting Hell, or that people will be eternally damned. He says that this idea was first introduced by the Renaissance poets and artists (like Dante) and were not based on the Bible at all. SC does think that there will be judgement, but that it will not be an eternal suffering, more of a refining fire that will prepare us for our eternity with God. One example is when Jesus talks about Hell, and the gnashing of teeth, which SC says should never have been translated at all, as the word Jesus used (translated as ‘Hell’) was an actual place, used as a rubbish tip, where wild dogs lived (and gnashed their teeth) and that Jesus is asking, would you rather live with God, or in that place?
There is too much in the book for me to cover everything here, and I found many of the ideas troubling, though also that many fitted with my understanding of God. One of the main points made by SC was that God does not create people for eternal suffering, in other words: Hell, as usually defined, is a human invention and does not exist in the form we imagine. SC says he cannot accept that God, who is defined as Love, could create people knowing that they will eventually be destined for eternal suffering.
SC makes the point that if you asked Paul, or any of the early apostles, how they knew that they were saved, they would look at you blankly, and reply: “Because I am a Jew.” The Jews believed that, simply because they were Jewish, they were chosen, they were ‘saved’. SC argues that when Jesus died and rose again, this grace of God, was automatically extended to non-Jews, in short, that all people were now ‘chosen’ and therefore ‘saved’. He points out that when Paul writes that ‘through one man, all have sinned,’ we have no problem accepting that this means that due to the actions of Adam, who represents the first human, all people now sin. However, when, in the same passage, Paul then says that through the actions of Jesus, all are now saved, we start to add caveats. We say things like, ‘but it only applies if people have faith’ or ‘but people have to believe in the New Testament, and ask God into their lives, otherwise it doesn’t count.’ But that is not what is written. It is written as an equation—Adam sinned, so all sin: Jesus rose, so all are saved. It is, I feel, a compelling argument.
I find that I am left with a lot of questions after reading this book. SC has written a second book, and I will read that and see if it offers some clarity. There are things I disagree with, but some I find it difficult to define quite why I disagree. There are other points which I would like, very much, to be correct, but have not yet decided if it is wishful thinking or true. SC is undoubtedly a talented speaker/persuader, but that does not necessarily mean that he is correct.
Would I recommend this book? Well, that rather depends on who you are. If you don’t feel that you know everything about God, and that there is more to faith than perhaps you have discovered, then you might find this interesting. However, if you think you have faith and God pretty much ‘sorted’, and really you want to read things that backup rather than challenge your views, then perhaps you should avoid this book. SC writes that he hopes his book will start a discussion. My feeling is that it probably will (I for one am bursting to discuss his views with other people!) but unfortunately for SC, I suspect that he will not be part of those discussions. He has stated his views, people will now either agree or disagree with them, but as with most leaders, I expect the only feedback he receives will be negative. It is also quite likely to be voiced by people who have not read his book and have simply heard vague quotes. I do not know whether what SC wrote is correct, but I’m glad he wrote it because I think it’s good to sometimes question what we believe and explore other ideas. None of us knows all there is to know about God, he is beyond our understanding; but we can strive to understand a little more. What do you think?
Thank you for reading.
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