It was during college that I first read Jonathan Edwards and his famous 1741 sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”
The fiery imagery, the urgent calls to repent, and the dismal picture of God’s retributive action against people was supposed to be justice. Because so many people in my immediate surroundings were convinced this was what God was like, I assumed it was true. Everyone in my church and social circles—and therefore most Christians everywhere, I blindly reasoned—knew God was angry about sin, unrelentingly angry at people.
According to their interpretation of the Bible, God had to be angry at people…because sin…because unrepentance…because original sin makes everyone inherently evil…because if God was going to uphold justice, he had no choice but to hate people who sinned and cast them into hell (as if God is subservient to justice instead of vice versa, as if original goodness didn’t come before sin, as if hell is a physical location to which God enjoyed sending people…).
Violent, Peaceful, Hating, Loving, Schizophrenic God?
What about the Bible’s passages about love? What about Jesus’ unashamed and nonjudgmental embrace of obviously immoral people? What about the Hebrew scriptures including God’s ancient genocidal instructions and prayers about slaughtering innocent babies? What about the acceptance Jesus offered the most disdained sinners when he had every reason and opportunity to condemn? What about the bloody crucifixion and bloody warrior imagery of Jesus?
These are only the beginning of the complex questions Brian Zahnd addresses in his new book, Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God: The Scandalous Truth of the Very Good News* (WaterBrook, August 15, 2017). As founder and lead pastor of Word of Life Church in St. Joseph, Missouri, Zahnd has written compellingly about Christian ethics and practice at the intersection of violence, war, systems of power, and the modern West (see his other books, including A Farewell to Mars and Beauty Will Save The World).
In Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, Zahnd’s delivery of researched and passionate teachings come across more like a series of topical sermons—which is probably a good thing. This is the kind of book American Protestants need to recalibrate after hundreds of years of the Edwardsian angry God complex souring our theological framework.
It’s a book I wish I read a lot sooner.
At the end of high school, several pastors had given me books by popular Calvinist teachers. In the ongoing wrestling match of what to believe and what to do with my life, I latched on to the forceful, wrathful God complex taught around me. The Bible only teaches one perspective, I was led to believe, and of course the tribe I belonged to had the right perspective. We assumed we were “orthodox,” which is to say that our interpretation was surely the consistently held, case-closed, no-further-dialogue-needed set of propositional statements upheld as the one true way throughout all of church history and tradition.
(Tangent: Isn’t it funny how we’re always conveniently the “orthodox” ones, and anyone who disagrees with us is the “heretic”? Isn’t it strange how we’re so convinced we’ve got the right answers until a few things change and we’re forced to reconsider our framework and challenge our own assumptions?)
Love and Hermeneutics
God is love, and to know love is to know God (1 John 4:7-16). “Love is how we are to think about God, talk about God, believe in God,” Zahnd writes (p. 200). What Christian would disagree with that? And yet, the way it shakes out has profound relevance for the ethical framework our systems depend upon, both in religious institutions and in personal and public life.
Why does it matter if we believe the Bible teaches God is angry and violent? More specifically, what kind of actions do our beliefs propel us toward?
“By their fruit you will recognize them,” Jesus says about those who pronounce one thing but portray another (Matthew 7:15-20, NIV). When our beliefs give us license to hate and condone violence against people because God hates and condones violence, yet the results look nothing like Jesus, we have to wonder if we’re practicing the way of Christ or our own judgmental self-preservation baptized in Christian language.
As Zahnd states early in the book: “Any depiction of God, from whatever source, is subordinate to the revelation of God seen in Jesus” (p. 14). Therefore, our perpetually angry, sinner-hating, demanding deity interpretations of the Bible’s diverse writings must be filtered through the teachings and actions of Jesus.
Central Themes of Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God
Zahnd is a Twitter patron saint of practical theology and prophetic urgency. This book is a work of the Bible’s foundational teachings that directly influence not just our thoughts about God, but our actions toward people around us. In a polarized society and ample tendency to fight with violence and ideological molotov cocktails, Zahnd invites readers to turn our battle barriers into tables, our weapons into plowshares, and our passion for the Bible into greater love for the merciful God it points toward.
Though weighty in subject matter, the book is an introductory curation of key ideas rather than exhaustive academic arguments. Writing in a style for general audience readers, Zahnd addresses significant topics within Christian theology and practice in careful chapter by chapter exposition, including…
The confounding complexity of the Old Testament:
“The Old Testament is the inspired telling of the story of Israel coming to know their God. It’s a process. God doesn’t evolve, but Israel’s understanding of God obviously does. If the revelation of God is perfectly depicted in the Pentateuch, why follow the storyline of Scripture into the Prophets, Gospels, and Epistles? It seems obvious that we should accept that as Israel was in the process of receiving the revelation of Yahweh, some unavoidable assumptions were made. One of the assumptions was that Yahweh shared the violent attributes of other deities worshiped in the ancient Near East.” (pp. 14-15, 30)
The danger of literalizing the Bible’s use of metaphors:
“We cannot talk about God without using metaphor; it’s the only option we have when speaking of the supremely transcendent. But to literalize a metaphor is to create an idol and formulate an error.
We can use these metaphors, but we can’t literalize them. The only way to deal with this problem is to create a multitude of metaphors and occasionally retire some that have outlived their usefulness. The wrath of God is a biblical metaphor we use to describe the very real consequences we suffer from trying to go through life against the grain of love. Canadian theologian Brad Jersak says, “‘The wrath of God is understood as divine consent to our own self-destructive defiance.’” (p. 16)
Sin and its consequences:
“That God’s wrath is a biblical metaphor does not make the consequences of sin any less real or painful…Your own sin, if you do not turn away from it, will bring you great harm. The wisdom that acknowledges this fact is what we call the fear of God.” (pp. 18-19)
Perhaps God is still angry—at sin, evil, injustice, and anything that disrupts the shalom of people and the earth—just not at humans, God’s own creation, for whom God holds nothing but love.
What is “the Word of God” and why it matters:
“When we speak of the Word of God, Christians should think of Jesus first and the Bible second. It’s Jesus who is the true Word of God, not the Bible.
When we try to embrace Biblicism by placing all authority in a flat reading of Scripture and giving the Old Testament [and its violent passages] equal authority with Christ, God thunders from heaven, ‘No! This is my beloved Son! Listen to him!’” (pp. 50, 55)
What’s more original than original sin:
“We are worthy of God’s love and healing not on the basis of personal merit but because of the image we bear: the very image of God. Original blessing is more original than original sin!” (p. 108)
The Crucifixion of Jesus and wrathful atonement theory:
“At the cross we discover that the God revealed in Christ would rather die in the name of love than kill in the name of freedom.
The cross is not the place where God vents his wrath on Jesus. The cross is the place where human fear and anger are absorbed into God’s eternal love and recycled into the saving mercy of Christ. If we persist in thinking that somehow it was God who demanded the murder of Jesus, we continue to exonerate the very system of evil that God intends to save us from.” (pp. 85-86, 114-115)
The gospel and the afterlife:
“Peter and Paul were not preaching a gospel of ‘how to go to heaven and not hell when you die.’ Their gospel was the audacious announcement that the world has a new Lord, a new King, a new emperor: the crucified and risen Jesus of Nazareth.
According to Jesus, the avoidance of afterlife condemnation is not based upon being able to give particular answers to abstract theological questions cribbed from John Calvin and labeled ‘faith’ but on how one actually lives his or her life.” (125-126, 127)
Hell and torment:
“Hell is the love of God wrongly received…Isaac the Syrian, a seventh-century bishop and theologian who had an enormous influence in shaping the theology of the Christian East, writes:
‘…It is totally false to think that sinners in hell are deprived of God’s love…Love’s power acts in two ways: it torments sinners, while at the same time it delights those who have lived in accord with it.’” (p. 137)
Apocalyptic misunderstandings in the book of Revelation:
Its many sensational interpretations have led modern Christianity further from the historical context that makes Revelation a powerfully subversive cultural critique. Empire is a prevailing evil of dehumanization and oppression, and is no less present when we survey the global and political landscape today.
“When we literalize the militant images of Revelation we arrive at this conclusion: in the end even Jesus gives up on love and resorts to violence. Tragically, those who refuse to embrace the way of peace taught by Jesus use the symbolic war of Revelation 19 to silence the Sermon on the Mount.” (p. 173)
So many debates in today’s politically-charged landscape take root in the entanglement many American Christians, whether knowingly or unknowingly, maintain between assumed Judeo-Christian ethics and America First doctrine. Rampant appropriation of the Bible’s accounts of violent power struggle feed America’s preoccupation with militarism, nationalism, and systems of power that use violent force. The corrosive link is hijacked biblical interpretation, which Zahnd notes is especially dangerous:
“If we see the Bible as an end in itself instead of an inspired witness pointing us to Jesus, it will become an idol. Idols are gods we can manage according to our own interests. If we want to make the Bible our final authority, which is an act of idolatry, we are conveniently ignoring the problem that we can make the Bible say just about whatever we want. In doing this we bestow a supposed divine endorsement upon our already established opinion. The historical examples of this are nearly endless; crusaders, slaveholders, and Nazis have all proved themselves adept at bolstering their ideologies with images drawn from the Bible” (p. 63).
It’s easy to scoff at such mentions of historical ethnocentrism, institutionalized biblicism, and the oppression that followed. We’re beyond that, aren’t we? But alas, the arc of the moral universe doesn’t automatically bring progress. That’s why we’ll have to keep returning to that link of biblical interpretation and misappropriation, especially about the angry God complex that leads to so many violent, discordant worldviews today.
Zahnd’s Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God is a timely recalibration to the radically loving, non-violent, transformative way of Jesus that American Christianity needs.
Read a free excerpt of Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God. Available at Amazon.com and at BarnesAndNoble.com.
Find more stories on faith, culture, and changing worldviews here.
*Disclaimer: I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.