Brian Zahnd. Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God: The Scandalous Truth of the Very Good News. Waterbrook, 2017. See here to buy the book.
Brian Zahnd is founder and pastor of Word of Life Church, which is in St. Joseph, Missouri. In Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God,
Zahnd contends that God is purely loving, against certain Christian
portrayals of God as violent and wrathful. Zahnd uses Jonathan Edwards’
famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” as a foil for
his own theology (yet Zahnd acknowledges that Edwards wrote beautiful
things about love).
Zahnd maintains that God’s fullest and clearest revelation of
God-self is in Jesus Christ, who taught and exemplified love and
non-retaliation instead of wrath. Zahnd offers an alternative
interpretation of themes in the Bible that he believes have been
wrongfully associated with wrath and violence. Regarding Jesus’ death
on the cross for atonement, Zahnd disagrees with the view that it is
about Jesus appeasing God’s wrath towards sinners by being punished in
their place; rather, for Zahnd, it concerns the powers-that-be throwing a
monstrous sin at the Son of God, and Jesus responding with love and
forgiveness. According to Zahnd, the wrath of God in the Bible is not
about God being angry with people, but rather is a short-hand phrase for
the natural consequences that people experience from their own sins,
particularly their failure to love. Similarly, Zahnd does not see hell
as a torture chamber for non-Christians but regards it instead as the
loneliness and misery (in this life and the next) that result from
people’s refusal to love. The Book of Revelation, for Zahnd, is not
about Jesus ending the world with a violent onslaught, but rather it
conveys through symbolism the triumph of Jesus and Christians over the
evils of the world through love and non-violence. Zahnd’s theology
seems to rest on a view of divine moral influence: God influences people
through Christ to do the right thing, they act accordingly, and that
transforms the world for the better.
Zahnd attempts to support his views with Scripture. He does not
cover every base, and many will find his explanations of divine violence
in Scripture and his interpretations of biblical passages to be
wanting. While the book contains some of the usual progressive
Christian spiel, it also offers fresh (to me) and interesting
interpretations of Scripture. For example, when Paul, quoting Proverbs
25:21-22, says that feeding one’s enemies will heap coals of fire on
their heads (Romans 12:20), what does that mean? That helping one’s
enemies is actually an underhanded way of hurting them? For Zahnd,
enemies resent love that is shown to them by the person they hate, until
they themselves love. Another example: Zahnd interprets the narrow way
of Matthew 7:13-14 as the Golden Rule, which is in v 12. According to
Zahnd, those who say “Lord, Lord” while refusing to love are not
entering the Kingdom that God is creating, for the point of the Kingdom
is love. Zahnd’s argument that Jesus in the Book of Revelation does not
follow the modus operandi of the Beast is also compelling.
—-Although Zahnd obliquely refers to what he considers to be
misguided interpretations of Romans, he should have engaged Paul’s
Epistle to the Romans more than he did, since, at least on a surface
reading, Paul is teaching there what Zahnd attempts to refute: that all
are sinners deserving eschatological judgment, but Christ’s death
delivers them from God’s wrath, if they have faith.
—-Zahnd makes the case that Jesus departs from the Hebrew Bible’s
depiction of God as vengeful (which Zahnd attributes to a limited human
understanding of God). Zahnd also does well to wrestle with Gospel
passages about perishing, Gehenna, and Hades. At the same time, Zahnd
should have addressed passages in which Jesus appears to uphold
positions with which Zahnd disagrees. Zahnd, for example, is rather
dogmatic that Jesus opposes the death penalty, but Jesus in Matthew 15:4
seems to affirm Exodus 21:17’s statement that those who dishonor their
parents are to be put to death. This is not to suggest that we should
see Jesus as a “hang ’em high” right-winger, for Zahnd argues rather
convincingly that Jesus’ mission was one of salvation and not wrath.
Still, acknowledging where Jesus embraces or absorbs his cultural
context can lead to thought-provoking discussion, about such issues as
Jesus’ incarnation and humanity.
—-Zahnd could have displayed a more charitable attitude towards
conservative Christians, as ugly and as damaging as he may find their
positions to be. Zahnd somewhat balances out the negative things that
he says about them by sharing that he once believed as they do.
—-Finally, Zahnd should have offered advice about how people who have
difficulty loving others can arrive at a state of love, since he does
seem to teach that salvation is by love. Such advice would have added a
greater pastoral dimension to the book.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through Blogging for Books. My review is honest.
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