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Book Review: Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God

Thought-provoking, irritating, and concerning are all words I would use to describe Brian Zahnd’s book, Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God.  Rev. Zahnd starts the book telling about his experiences as a child when much of the preaching centered around the wrath of God.  People were scared into hell.  His own favorite sermon was Jonathan Edward’s Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.  He relates how he used to read the Chick Publication tracts (probably most of my readers are too young to remember them) and how they formed his imagination to believe in an angry God.  Mr. Zahnd has reacted to all of this anger by swinging in the other direction.  He has written this book to show how God is not angry, He is loving.

First, Mr. Zahnd has a lot of good things to say.  However, he says a lot that I just can’t agree with.  I’m not a theologian nor a pastor nor an intellectual, but I do know my Bible pretty well and I’m very uncomfortable with much in the book.  I believe that some of his theology is spot on, some of it is sloppy, and some of it is heretical.  It’s for that reason that I can’t recommend this book to anybody.  I think that a little truth mixed in with a little error is more dangerous than just flat out error.

That’s the short summary of the book.  If you want to read details about why I don’t like the book, please keep reading. Please note, I failed to make notes of the pages from which I quoted; I’ve gone back and filled in as many as I can, but I’m sure some are missing.

First, here are some of the things I liked about Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God:
  •         Rev. Zahnd says he is uncomfortable with an evangelistic approach that frightens people into following Jesus.  I cautiously agree.  However, I think that without a conviction of our sin, we will not see our need for a Savior.  I would like a more balanced approach than what I see Rev. Zahnd promoting.
  •          Jesus is the face of the Father.  If we want to know what God is like, we should look at Jesus.
  •      God doesn’t hate you.  I think we need to remember this.  I do know many people, especially my West African friends who assume that bad things are happening in their lives are a direct correlation to a sin that they have confessed and God has forgiven.  We need to stop thinking of God as One who pounces on us at every turn.
  •         We shouldn’t use Scripture to excuse or justify the implementation of violence.  I tend towards pacifism and agreed with a lot of what he said about what following the Prince of Peace should mean in our daily living.
  •          Rev. Zahnd’s explanation of Jesus fulfilling the stories of the Widow of Zarephath and Naaman the leper were very helpful to me.  In those Old Testament stories, God revealed himself to non-Jewish people.  Jesus sites these two stories and the implication is that “I am the fulfillment of this.  God is revealing himself, through me, to all people, including the Gentiles.”
  •          We should read the Law and Prophets in the light of Christ.
  •          There is a move in the Bible from violence to peace.
  •          Christians are unique in worshipping a betrayed, tortured, crucified God.  This is the original scandal of the Christian faith.
  •         Jesus’ death doesn’t revoke revenge, but confers forgiveness.
  •      A tendency to deify the state is particularly pronounced in rich and powerful nations that believe they have a divine right to rule.

Some general concerns I have about the book are:
  • Rev. Zahnd says we can make the Bible say almost anything we want.  Which I fully agree with, but then he seems to do the same, citing verses that prove his point while not dealing with verses that contradict his point
  • It seems that he is trying so desperately to help us understand God that he eliminates the things that we don’t understand or that are difficult to understand.  It feels to me like he is trying to bring God down to our level.  We can’t explain God or fully understand him.  He is God and we are not.
  • He claims to accept orthodoxy, but he also rejects much that is orthodox.  He accuses other believers of things I’ve never heard from believers such as that God changes His mind, God killed Jesus (I did look this up and there are Christian leaders who say this), God demanded child sacrifice, we use the Old Testament as an endorsement for violence, and Jesus was punished by God. 
  • He says some off-the-wall stuff like, “Jesus delivers the Bible from its addiction to violent retaliation.”  Jesus certainly was radical in what he said, but how can the Bible even be addicted to something?

And then I have a lot of questions which include:
  •          Rev. Zahnd says the wrath of God is a metaphor (p 16, 17).  Metaphors are used to describe things for which we just can’t find adequate words.  So, we say that God is a rock to describe his strength and steadfastness.  He is a chicken hiding her chicks under her wings to describe his loving care.  But Rev. Zahnd says the wrath of God is also a metaphor.  But I wonder, if wrath is a metaphor, then the authors who used those words were trying to describe something greater than they could explain.  And if wrath is a metaphor, how do we know that love, kindness, mercy, and forgiveness aren’t also metaphors and can just be swiped away the way he wants to dismiss wrath?  Is an emotion necessarily a metaphor?
  •          Rev. Zahnd seems to implicate that since God is love, he can’t be anything else.  But maybe this isn’t an either/or proposition, but a both/and proposition.  There are many facets to God’s character and his ways are so far above and beyond our ways.  A parent loves their child, but at times they need to punish them for their own sake.
  •          Mr. Zahnd says we have nothing to fear from God.  I think he’s partly right.  If we are followers of Jesus, and our sins are forgiven, then indeed, we have nothing to fear from God.  We are in a loving relationship with him.  But time and time again in the Bible the reaction to an angel or to God appearing, or even to Jesus performing a miracle, was fear.
  •       Multiple times Mr. Zahnd states that the Bible is not the perfect revelation of God; Jesus is.  Again, why does this have to be either/or?  Why not both/and?  And how do we know about Jesus?  Through the Bible.
  •          Sometimes reading this book really made my head hurt.  I was really confused by his explanation of Jesus’ sacrificial work on the cross.  For example:

o   He says that “at the cross Jesus doesn’t save us from God, he reveals him as Savior.  At the cross, we don’t see what God does, but who he is.”(p. 82)  My question is, yes, but from what is God saving us? John 3:16 tells us that he loves us so much that he gave us one and only son that whoever believes in him will not perish, but will have everlasting life.
o   The cross is the murder of an innocent man.” Yes, true enough, but there must be more to it than that.  Otherwise why did Jesus come to earth? Rev. Zahnd would say to reveal God to us, but there has to be more to it than that.
o    “God’s foreknowledge of this killing doesn’t mean that it was God’s will for Jesus to be murdered.” (p. 84) No, he didn’t want him to be murdered, but there was no other way to have a once-for-all sacrifice for sins.
o   God willed that Jesus be faithful to truth and love so that through Jesus’ violent and sinful death, we would be liberated from violence, sin, and death.”  (p. 84) Is there no liberation for the punishment and consequences of our sin?
o    “The cross is not a picture of payment; the cross is a picture of forgiveness.”  (p. 86) Again, why does this have to be an either/or statement?  Why can’t it be both/and?
o    “God does not punish an innocent substitute for the petty sake of appeasement.” (p. 86) Rev. Zahnd’s sarcasm just gets really tiresome sometimes.  Why does he refer to paying the price of sin with words like “petty” and “appeasement”?  He also sarcastically claims that those who don’t believe like he does see God as harsh, severe, demanding, petulant, vicious, vengeful, malicious, malevolent, revengeful, a monster god, abusive, and violent.  No, no, no.  Let’s use words like broken-hearted, grieved, crushed, sad that his creation would turn from him and insist on their own sinful ways.
o   It is the nature of God to forgive, so he didn’t need Christ’s sacrifice to convince him to forgive.”  Christ’s sacrifice wasn’t necessary to convince God of anything. 
o    The only justice God will accept as justice is actually setting the world right!  (p. 103) My question, then, is how does God set the world right?  I believe it is through the death of Jesus who paid the punishment of all our sin.
o   Jesus came to do God’s will”. (p. 105) Yes, I agree, but my question, based on the context (that God didn’t need Christ’s sacrifice to convince him to forgive) is What was God’s will?   It was so that none will perish.  Jesus’ death was not only physically agonizing, it was also agonizing because of the weight of sin he would bear, because God would forsake him, because he would go to the depths of hell for us. 
o   God doesn’t demand a blood sacrifice.  Jesus did not shed his blood to buy God’s forgiveness.  (p. 106) If we read back through the Old Testament, I believe it was God who made the first sacrifice as he called a sheep to make clothing for Adam and Eve.  He accepted Abel’s blood sacrifice, but not Cain’s vegetable sacrifice.  He commanded sacrifice in the book of the Law.  That pagans corrupted the system of sacrifice to the point of offering children does not mean that God was playing into that system of child sacrifice.
o   “If we claim that it was God who required the crucifixion of Jesus, we seek to clothe with false dignity the very structures of sin that Jesus deliberately stripped bare and put to open shame in his death!”   (p. 107) Ummm, I’m not even sure what he’s saying here.
o   “We violently sinned our sins into Jesus.”  (p. 109) Umm, what?  I don’t know what he’s getting at and then when he explains it, I still don’t understand.
o   “Jesus taught that the Golden Rule is the narrow gate that leads to life.  The narrow gate is … a life of love and mercy.”  (p. 129) This sure sounds like salvation by works to me.  If I love enough I’m in.  How about “It is by grace you are saved through faith and that not of yourself.  It is the gift of God.” (Ephesians 2:8, 9) First there must be faith and a decision to follow Jesus (I do believe that decision can come slowly over time), then love follows that.  As Paul wrote in Galatians 5:6, “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.”
o   “Hell is if you refuse to love you cannot enter the kingdom of God and will end up a lonely, tormented soul.” (p. 135)  “Hell has something to do with refusing to receive and be transformed by the love of God.” (p. 137)  “Hell is the love of God refused.”  (p. 140) Again, this comes back to love being the way to salvation.  But how do I know if I’m loving enough?  If hating someone in my heart is murder, as Jesus said it is, then I’m hopeless at loving and I am among the wicked.  There are plenty of people who are good and loving and kind, but they don’t follow Jesus.  Rev. Zahnd says, though, that that doesn’t matter.
o   Rev. Zahnd also talks at length about how the religious leaders of Jesus’ day couldn’t stand perfection, so they killed him.  It had to do with their own wickedness not any plan of God (if I understand him correctly).  So, what’s the point of the crucifixion if it isn’t to save from eternal damnation?  If the crucifixion was because evil couldn’t stand a perfect Jesus, what if they hadn’t killed him?  He could have accomplished the purpose to love and teach us to love without dying so violently.  He could have died a natural death as an old man and we would have all considered him to be a prophet but nothing more.  His death has to have been for a reason!
o   The book ends with two chapters about Revelation.  I think that his interpretation is correct up to a point, but I think there are layers of fulfillment of Revelation.  He believes it was all fulfilled with the destruction of the Roman empire and the establishment of Christianity.  I feel like if this is all we get, it’s all kind of hopeless.  My observation of the world is that things are getting worse and worse, not better and better. 

Overall, I was disappointed with this book.  Ironically, the tone of the book borders on anger and cutting sarcasm and it just leaves me with way too many questions.

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.  The opinions are entirely my own.   You can read more about the book here and more about the author here.
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