Plenty has been thought, said, and written about Steve Chalke and his comments on atonement in The Lost Message of Jesus. Although N.T. Wright (who endorsed the book) has said that he doesn’t think that Chalke intended to deny penal substitution, Chalke has gone on record to confirm that he did. (See here for Garry J. William’s reply to Chalke, and here for a penetrating review by Donald MacLeod).
As for The Lost Message of Jesus, D.A. Carson begins his critique by noting that the title displays a somewhat confrontational stance – others have got the message wrong and Chalke is going to tell us how to get it right.
Chalke’s book takes as its controlling focus on the great truth that ‘God is love’ (1 Jn 4:18, 16). Christians are to love the loveless, embrace the untouchable, feed the hungry, forgive the unforgiveable, heal the sick, and welcome the marginalised.
Chalke claims that the Bible ‘never defines [God] as anything other than love.’ But this is wrong: God is also defined, for example, as ‘light’, 1 Jn 1:5, and ‘holy’ (e.g. Isa 6 and Rev 4). This mistake means that for Chalke God’s holiness is itself domesticated by his controlling understanding of love. Holiness becomes a way of talking about God’s pain as he looks out on a broken world. Thus, in Ex 33 when God tells Moses that no one can gaze on his face and live, this is because his face is so contorted with suffering. “No-one could bear to see a face wrung with such infinite pain and live.” But this speculation is rather difficult to reconcile with Ex 32:11.
Chalke has a similar problem with sin. Instead of arguing about original sin, as Christians have spent centuries doing, he wants to assert original goodness. After all, God declared that all creation, including humankind, was very good. But, of course, God made this declaration before the fall, Gen 1:31. Jesus himself (Mt 7:11; Mk 7:21-23) as well as Paul (Rom 3:9-20) assumed that people are inherently (though not, of course, irredeemably) sinful.
Any notion of penal substitution is, for Chalke, a massive contradiction of what he understands about the love of God.
“The fact is that the cross isn’t a form of cosmic child abuse – a vengeful Father, punishing his Son for an offence he has not even committed. Understandably, both people inside and outside of the Church have found this twisted version of events morally dubbious and a huge barrier to faith. Deeper than that, however, is that such a concept stands in total contradiction to the statement “God is love”. If the cross is a personal act of violence perpetrated by God towards humankind but borne by his Son, then is makes a mockery of Jesus’ own teaching to love your enemies and to refuse to repay evil with evil.”
This is a terrible misprepresentation of evangelical teaching on the atonement. Any competent treatment of substitutionary atonement will focus on the concurrence of the Father and the Son in the plan of the cross.
For the Chalke the cross is merely ‘”a symbol of love. It is a demonstration of just how far God as Father and Jesus as his Son are prepared to go to prove that love.” As one review comments, “In other words, the cross is no more than Jesus identifying with our suffering, sharing in the pathos of it. It is difficult to see how this helps us anymore than my injecting myself with the HIV virus would improve the lot of a friend who has AIDS.”
See Carson, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church, 182-186