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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About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. I study the History of Biblical Interpretation at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, as part of its Ph.D. program. I have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting.
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