Book Write-Up: Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God

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.

Some critiques:

—-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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Church Write-Up: The Sin Unto Death

Last Sunday, at one of the church services that I attended, the pastor was attempting to explain I John 5:16, which states (in the KJV):

“If any man see his brother sin a sin which is not unto death, he shall ask, and he shall give him life for them that sin not unto death. There is a sin unto death: I do not say that he shall pray for it.”

What is the sin that is unto death?  The pastor defined that in a variety of ways.  First, he said that it was apostasy, or leaving the Christian faith.  That is interesting, considering that he was defending the eternal security of the believer on the basis of John 10:28-29, where Jesus affirms that nobody shall take his sheep from his or his Father’s hand.  Second, the pastor defined the sin unto death as blasphemy, which is unforgivable.  The pastor said that this is why we should be careful about what we say when we are angry, particularly when we are angry with God: we do not want to blaspheme and commit a sin that is unforgivable.  Third, the pastor conceptualized the sin unto death as willful, defiant unbelief: refusing to believe in Jesus (as the New Testament defines him) or in the existence of an afterlife with rewards and punishments.  The pastor said that we should not waste our time praying for people who have sinned unto death: their mind is made up, and they cannot be helped.  Rather, we should spend time helping and praying for believers who struggle: Christians whose marriage is on the rocks, for example.

I am in between computers right now, so I do not have access to my Word Biblical Commentary.  But, just looking at the verse, I wonder how it can be rehabilitated, or interpreted in a less-than-dire light.  The verse seems to be saying that there are some people for whom we should not pray, presumably for restoration from sin.  That is a difficult saying.  Can we, with our own limited perspectives, judge anyone as beyond hope?

Here are some thoughts—-not necessarily answers, but thoughts:

A.  Last week, I was reading blog posts by a husband and a wife, both of whom are Christians.  The wife was praising her husband on her blog, and the husband then praised his wife on his blog.  The wife said on her blog that there was a time in which she left the faith, but her husband kept praying for her, and she returned.  I think that the husband did the right thing, but does it gel with I John 5:16?  We can say that she obviously had not committed the sin unto death because she returned to the faith: there must have been some desire for or adherence to the Christian faith deep down inside of her, for she did return.  How, though, can we judge anyone as having committed the sin unto death, when we do not know everything that is going on in a person’s mind?  I John 5:16 seems to assume that we can know who has committed the sin that is unto death, and that we should not pray for that person.

B.  There may be some kernel of wisdom in I John 5:16, assuming I am understanding it correctly.  In a Bible study that I attended in college, we were going through the Gospel of Luke.  We were discussing Luke 9-10, in which Jesus offers instructions to his disciples about preaching in towns.  Someone in the group, in response to this passage, asked if Christians should spend their time witnessing to a person who is unreceptive, or if they should move on to another person, as the disciples moved on from town to town and shook the dust off their feet at towns that were unreceptive.  The leader thought that was a valid question: so many people need to hear the Gospel, he reasoned, so perhaps we should not spend a lot of time on people who are not interested.  There may be wisdom to that, yet I have known of Christian wives who have prayed for non-Christian husbands for decades before their husbands finally believed.  They did not give up hope.

C.  The web site where I looked up I John 5:16 also lists Jeremiah 7:17; 11:14; and Jeremiah 14:11, in which God exhorts the prophet Jeremiah not to pray for the people of Judah.  It must either be hopeless at that point, or God does not mean what God says there but is using hyperbole to express how frustrated God really is.  Prophets did intercede for Israel when it was especially bad.  When does one move from being simply bad, to having committed a sin unto death (and I am not asking this in search of a loophole)?  Plus, had Israel committed the sin unto death, since Jeremiah prophesied that God would restore Israel, showing Israel still had a positive future in store?  Or did that specific generation of Israelites—-the one in Jeremiah’s day—-commit the sin unto death?

D.  Paul (or the character of Paul, for liberal scholars) says he used to be a blasphemer in I Timothy 1:13, so, obviously, blasphemy is forgivable.  In Matthew 12:32, Mark 3:28, and Luke 12:10, Jesus says that there are blasphemies, such as speaking against the Son, which can be forgiven, but that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven in this age or the age to come.  That said, like the pastor (I gather), I have been slightly dissatisfied with the typical evangelical claim that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is merely an attitude rather than an act of speech.  There may be something to that, but Jesus, after discussing the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, criticizes careless words and affirms that people will be judged over their words (Matthew 12:36-37).  I definitely do not want to go so far as to say that spurting out careless words against God in a state of rage (even a continuous state of anger) is unforgivable, but I do think that Jesus’ emphasis on words needs to be addressed.

E.  After hearing the sermon, a lady I know, who seems to consider herself a non-believer, was talking about the afterlife.  She expressed dismay that so many people get away with evil in this life, and she hoped that there was karma in the afterlife.  Shortly thereafter, she saw the movie Hacksaw Ridge, and she respected and admired the humility and love for others (even his persecutors) of the movie’s Christian protagonist, Desmond Doss.  I do not want to write myself into a pit, trying to qualify everything that I say, but there are non-believers who are open to ideas that Christians claim as their own, or as from God in origin.  (There are non-believers, of course, who would dispute that those ideas are distinctly or uniquely Christian.)  But some are not open to those ideas (or some of them).  Should we really maintain that God gives up on them, and that it is hopeless to pray for them?

I’ll stop here.  Remember, if you choose to respond (here or by e-mail), I am in between computers, so it may take me a while to read what you have to say.  Thanks!

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Book Write-Up: Seeking Refuge

Stephan Bauman, Matthew Soerens, and Dr. Issam Smeir.  Seeking Refuge: On the Shores of the Global Refugee Crisis.  Moody, 2016.  See here to buy the book.

Stephan Bauman and Matthew Soerens work for World Relief, which partners with churches for the purpose of international relief and development.  Dr. Issam Smeir is a counselor who is a specialist in trauma, specifically for refugees, torture victims, and children who have been abused and neglected.

As the title indicates, this book is about refugees.  It addresses a variety of questions: Who are the refugees?  What are they fleeing?  What challenges do they face in the United States, and how has the church helped them to adjust?  Do refugees take jobs away from American citizens and burden the system?  And does allowing them into the United States increase the threat of radical Islamic terrorism on U.S. soil?

The book effectively makes the points that it wants to make.  It tells anecdotes that demonstrate the human face of the issue.  Its description of the economic and psychological problems that many refugees face is vivid.  Its critique of the claims that refugees may pose a terror threat and burden the U.S. system are well-documented.  The book draws from studies, including studies from such conservative organizations as the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute.  (Yet, one should remember that there are divisions within the right over issues.)  The book also stresses the importance of remembering cultural differences as the church seeks to assist refugees in the United States, and it encourages Christians to view refugees as an opportunity, as they can replenish the church as millennials leave it (though the book stresses that the church should not help refugees primarily to increase its numbers).

Although the book effectively critiqued the argument that refugees may pose a terror threat if they are let into the United States, there were times when it seemed to argue that this issue does not matter: God wants us to help the alien, and we should obey, period.  The book likens those who want to increase restrictions on the entrance of refugees for national security reasons to the Pharaoh of Exodus 1, who had national security concerns about the foreign Israelites in Egypt.  Their theological and religious arguments certainly deserve consideration, but they could have been developed further.  There are places in the Bible that call upon God’s people to trust in God: for example, prophets in the Hebrew Bible exhorted Judah to trust God for her national security rather than entering into foreign alliances.  At the same time, there are biblical passages that encourage wisdom in the pursuit of self-protection (i.e., the Proverbs), and those, too, deserve consideration in discussions about immigration.

While the book was informative, some topics could have used more detail.  What happens to the refugees who are waiting to enter the U.S., who are not allowed to enter, or who lack financial resources?  The book addressed this tangentially, but not always in detail.  More detail would have strengthened the book’s case that help is necessary.  While the book provided some details about the process by which the U.S. Government decides which refugees to admit, it should have explained what questions it asks.  Some argue that it is difficult to discover the background of some of the refugees, so the book could have further alleviated concerns about the refugees by explaining how the Government learns more about them, beyond saying that this agency compares notes with that agency.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher.  My review is honest.

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Thoughts about the opposition to Paul


I have been considering the opposition to Paul since reading Jerome Murphy-O’Connor’s Paul: A Critical Life.  Although I could not totally agree with his theory of Paul’s opponents, his treatment did make this a bigger issue in my mind.  Some kind of a counter mission seemed to be going on.  Murphy-O’Connor makes a good case for the “thorn in the flesh” being Paul’s recurring opponents.

Of course, all the opponents were not the same.  Those in Thessalonica, Colossae, and at least some of those at Corinth were probably local.  But those who came to Galatia and those mentioned in Philippians seem to be people engaged in a counter mission against Paul.  Murphy-O’Connor adds the external opponents of Paul at Corinth.

The majority opinion among scholars is that these were Judaizers, a term which usually means a party that wanted Gentiles to become Jewish proselytes in order to be welcomed…

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Real Christianity by William Wilberforce, book review

Enough Light

Awhile back, I found a copy of Real Christianity, Discerning True Faith from False Beliefs by William Wilberforce at the thrift store. The edition is by Victor Classics (2005), and it had been edited and abridged for the modern reader.

William Wilberforce was an evangelical Christian in 18th century England, and he is most well known for leading the movement to abolish the slave trade. In Real Christianity he addressed the problem of cultural Christianity in England during his time. Many people claimed to be Christian but it had no influence or effect on how they lived their daily life. (Hmm…sound familiar?)

Wilberforce does not mince words, and calls out the biblical illiteracy and behavioral hypocrisy he observed in so-called church people. Wilberforce gets to the heart of the matter. Such as in one section where he outlines 3 ways that Christians have an inadequate conception of Christianity: 1. inadequate…

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Sometimes Eternity Ain’t Forever: Aiónios and the Universalist Hope

Eclectic Orthodoxy


When discussing the question of eschatological judgment, defenders of traditional doctrine  immediately appeal to our Lord’s teaching on hell. It is simply obvious that Jesus taught the eternal damnation of the reprobate. Certainly that is how almost all the English translations render the relevant New Testament texts. The classic passage is Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats (Matt 25:31-46). The parable concludes with these words (Matt 25:46):

καὶ ἀπελεύσονται οὗτοι εἰς κόλασιν αἰώνιον, οἱ δὲ δίκαιοι εἰς ζωὴν αἰώνιον

And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal. (KJV)

And these will depart into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life. (RSV)

And these shall go away to punishment age-during, but the righteous to life age-during. (YLT)

And these shall be coming away into chastening eonian, yet the just into life eonian. (CLNT)

And these…

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Jews, Kurds, and a weird coincidence


Among the ethnic and nationalist movements that have made news lately has been a vote for independence by Iraqi Kurds.  Actually, the Kurds are in Turkey and Iran too. All three countries strongly oppose Kurdish independence.  But Israel gives the Kurds sympathy and support.

There is a bridge between current events and  ancient history.  The Jews and the Kurds seem to be relatives.  Here is a link to an article by Kevin Alan Brook about genetic tests that show a tie between Jews and Iraqi Kurds.

Why would modern Jews have genetic ties to Kurdish Muslims?  There were ties between Israel and the Kurdish area at about the time of the New Testament. The region of Erbil (also spelled Arbil or Irbil) Iraq was then called Adiabene and was associated with the Parthian Empire.

Here is part of Brook’s article:

In ancient times, the royal house of Adiabene and…

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