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The Radical Evangelical

August 2001 | by Alex Donnelly

Last month I introduced a book entitled The Radical Evangelical by Nigel Wright. This claims to set out a modern-day Evangelical theology, a middle way between liberalism and fundamentalism.

But as we considered Wright’s teaching about Christ and Scripture we began to see that there is nothing evangelical about his views. We complete our critique of this book, and the dangerous trends it represents, by looking at Wright’s teaching on redemption and judgement.

Penal substitution

Wright examines the doctrine of redemption in his fifth chapter. Although wishing to retain some traditional elements, he is particularly critical of the notion of penal substitution.

He writes: ‘Penal substitution … risks presenting a loving Son appeasing a wrathful and angry Father. This is not the intention of the New Testament which clearly asserts the origin of the cross in the love of the Father’ (p.59). Wright here makes the fundamental mistake of juxtaposing God’s love and wrath as if they were mutually exclusive.

Caricaturing the traditional evangelical understanding of the death of Christ, he continues: ‘the cross is portrayed as an ingenious way in which God can forgive human beings, as he has wanted to all along, without selling out on his just government of the world. However, the cross then becomes God’s way out of his own dilemma rather than a resolution of the human condition’ (p.64).

In this way Wright suggests that the church’s historic understanding of the atonement is wrong. It portrays God the Father (he says) as a selfish being, more concerned about escaping his own moral quandary than dealing fairly with his Son.

He has the affront to add: ‘the image of a father punishing a son for an offence he has not committed is morally dubious’ (p.59).

Propitiation

Part of the problem with Wright’s understanding of ‘penal substitution’ is that it ignores the biblical notion of ‘propitiation’. Indeed, his major thrust seems to consist in upholding expiation while rejecting propitiation.

This is confirmed by his analysis of the significance of the Old Testament sacrificial system: ‘There appear to be two ways in which the efficacy of sacrifice could be conceived: older assumptions were that sacrifice enacted a transfer of divine wrath away from the sinner and onto the sacrificial victim who was punished in the sinner’s place.

‘An alternative interpretation is that the blood of a sacrificial victim represents the release of life in such a way as to renew or purify a life which has been sullied by sin. The blood of the sacrifice therefore acts as a powerful cleansing agent purifying the polluting effect of human sin.

‘In the first instance, the victim passively bears a punishment not its own; in the second, the offering of the sacrifice is proactive. Both are concerned with divine wrath, but the former sees the wrath of God being removed through propitiation as it is endured by a substitute; in the second, divine wrath is removed because the causes of that wrath in human sin are taken away or expiated’ (p.62, author’s emphasis).

The life and death of Christ

Wright espouses the second of these views but fails to deal with texts that explicitly mention ‘propitiation’ (e.g. Romans 3:25; 1 John 4:10). Such an omission indicates the extent to which he has departed from the apostolic doctrine of the atonement.

Having rejected the idea of penal substitution, Wright goes on to speak of redemption as being rooted in the life of Christ rather than in his death.

Echoing Ireneaus’ doctrine of ‘Recapitulation’, he states: ‘the Father gives the Son over to redeem and restore the human race by participating in human existence and human fate’ (p.69).

This is confirmed by what Wright says in a later chapter: ‘Christ lived among us as the true human being, as the “last Adam” or the “ultimate man”, the exemplar and fulfilment of humanity, who, through death and resurrection, offered to the Father on our behalf the sacrifice of an acceptable life” (p.81).

The Bible, however, links redemption to the death of Christ, who gave his life ‘a ransom for many’. In refusing to recognise this, Wright departs seriously from the biblical doctrine of salvation.

Divine judgement

In the seventh chapter, Wright deals with the fate of unbelievers. The very title of the chapter: (‘A Kinder, Gentler Damnation?’) indicates the direction in which he is going.

As is becoming increasingly popular in ‘Evangelical’ circles, Wright rejects the church’s historic view of hell as a place of unending, conscious suffering: ‘Hell is not a place of eternal conscious torment in fire but an ultimate, final encounter with God.

‘The lost do not simply cease to exist when they die physically; they are not quietly liquidated after the judgement when they have been restored to conscious and personal existence.

‘The torment of hell consists in beholding God at the last, looking upon his beauty, majesty and infinite love and knowing that through one’s deliberate fault all of this has been made forfeit and lost. In short, hell is the infinite loss of God’ (p.94).

Although there is some truth in what Wright says, he does not tell us what happens to the impenitent after they recognise that they have forfeited the enjoyment of God.

Do they continue for ever in this state of beholding God and lamenting the fact that they have forfeited him? Wright seems to suggest not. He speaks of the ‘destruction’ of sinners, but never explains the mechanism by which this occurs.

The unevangelised

In his desire to extend salvation to as many as possible, Wright suggests that death may not mark the end of all hope. Men and women may still be saved, he claims, even after they have passed from this life.

This, of course, requires a major reinterpretation of Hebrews 9:27. Wright provides such a reinterpretation, affirming that the term ‘judgement’ does not necessarily mean ‘the final pronouncement of condemnation or acquittal, but rather the clarifying and purifying work of God whereby the truth [of an individual’s final state] emerges, and this could in the final analysis go either way’.

By what means would such ‘judgement’ proceed? Wright answers: ‘There is the possibility of what is termed “post-mortem evangelism”. Either at the point of death or in some condition beyond death, all who have been deprived of the opportunity for faith in Christ in life are given that opportunity by direct encounter with Christ’ (p.98).

Wright does not seek to substantiate this from the Bible. Rather, he chooses to emphasise the grace of God, and develops his argument on the basis of human logic.

He says: ‘The key question, therefore, is not so much whether human beings can be redeemed beyond death as whether God’s search for his fallen creatures is thwarted by death or continues beyond it’ (p.99).

Personal encounter?

But the suggestion of ‘post-mortem evangelism’ raises a host of difficulties. If his view is true, then why bother at all with any evangelism? The chances of someone accepting salvation would be tremendously enhanced, one would have thought, by having a personal post-mortem encounter with Christ!

Why deny people this wonderful opportunity by sharing the gospel with them in this life, when they are more likely to reject it?

Why stop at those who have not heard the gospel in this life? Why not also apply it to any who have not had a good explanation of the gospel? Or even to those who heard the gospel clearly enough, but were put off through the bad witness of the evangelist?

We could dream up a multiplicity of similar cases that would allow almost everyone who did not repent in this life, to be saved when they encounter Christ in the afterlife and hear the gospel directly from him.

Although Wright explicitly rejects universalism (but only because this denies man the right to reject God’s offer of salvation!), he so emphasises the ‘grace’ of God that one wonders when God would stop seeking man’s salvation.

If he does not stop at the end of man’s earthly life, how long may he not go on seeking to win the unrepentant? Perhaps he will go on long enough for all to be saved, of their own free will!

Conclusion

I end by expressing two concerns. One is that the man who teaches these views has for years been training people for the ministry in the UK. The implications of this for the state of the Evangelical church are frightening!

The second concern is that The Radical Evangelical comes with the recommendation of someone of the stature and influence of Roger Forster. He writes: ‘Nigel Wright has done us a great service in surveying and analysing the many tribes of evangelicals. His appeal for radical evangelicalism will find a response from many sincere believers of every shade of opinion’ (extract from the cover of the book).

Such a comment confirms the sad fact that the Evangelical church in the UK is now exceedingly confused doctrinally.

May the Lord raise up men who will clearly proclaim the truth of the gospel!