Today I have the privilege of posting some brief thoughts on the latest new book from Brian Zahnd, titled Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, published by WaterBrook and released on 15 August.
Those who have followed my blog or my Facebook posts for any length of time will be no stranger to Zahnd. A veteran pastor of 35 years’ standing, in recent years he has become a prolific and increasingly important voice for those who tire of dogmatic fundamentalism and its ugly implications, but who are unwilling to simply throw in the towel and walk away from the faith altogether. As a result, Zahnd is at the forefront of a rising tide of prophetic voices whose mission is to help Christians and non-Christians alike rediscover – in the words of the book’s subtitle – “The Scandalous Truth of the Very Good News”. (I have previously reviewed two other books by Zahnd: A Farewell To Mars and Water to Wine).
In a way, Sinners bears some similarity with Zahnd’s previous book Water to Wine: Some of my Story, in that it starts with what he once believed as a zealous young Jesus freak and tracks his theological trajectory from there towards a much broader, deeper and more beautiful faith. The key difference, though, is that where Water to Wine was essentially a biographical narrative that served as a framework for Zahnd’s theological growth, Sinners is unashamedly a work of theology – by which I mean that its focus is theological, not biographical, and it is structured into broad theological topics, including some “hot potatoes”.
A quick word about the book’s title, whose resonance may escape those less familiar with the history of American evangelicalism. In 1741, revivalist preacher Jonathan Edwards preached what would become his most famous sermon, titled Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, in which he expounded, often in lurid terms, on fallen man’s utter depravity and God’s deserved utter contempt for humankind. The sermon went on to become a Puritan classic, and was without doubt foundational and extremely influential in later American revivalism and evangelicalism more broadly. (For a flavour of Edwards’s sermon, read Zahnd’s book: he quotes a sample of excerpts from it in the first chapter.)
It should be obvious enough by now what Zahnd is trying to achieve in Sinners: his aim is to subvert the angry-God theology of Edwards’s infamous sermon and paint a much truer and more beautiful picture of God and the Gospel that will be compelling to those put off by the legacy of Edwards and his theological offspring. And in this task he succeeds admirably, primarily because his approach is not to tear down and overcome Edwards’s sermon by sheer force of argument, but rather to simply hold up the unparalleled beauty of the loving God he has encountered on his own journey of life and study, and allow it to outshine and eclipse all lesser portraits of the divine.
Some of the ground covered in Sinners will be very familiar to those already acquainted with Zahnd: the first half of the book focuses on topics like doing away with the notion of vengeance, seeing Jesus as “what God has to say”, and understanding Jesus’ death and resurrection without the violent and retributive baggage that has so often been loaded onto it.
In the second half of the book, however, Zahnd ventures into territory he hasn’t explored in any of his previous books – at least not explicitly or in any great depth. Specifically, he examines the notion of hell and concludes that it is best understood first as the misery, pain and death we inflict on each other through violence and war in all their forms, and second as the tormented state of those who adamantly reject love, whether in this life or the next. But the crucial point, in Zahnd’s words, is that “no one who calls upon the mercy of God is ever refused”.
Zahnd then spends three chapters surveying that part of the Bible that has undoubtedly provided the most fuel for angry-God theologians: the book of Revelation. Without engaging in detailed exposition or verse-by-verse exegesis (which would require a book of its own), he clearly and convincingly shows how John the Revelator masterfully uses an array of imagery and symbolism to reveal and underscore a startling truth: war, bloodshed and vengeance belong not to God but to empire. Indeed, the most persistent and meaningful image John uses to represent Christ is not a mighty warrior but a little lamb. It’s true that Revelation depicts God as the winner of the great battle between good and evil, but he wins this battle entirely through self-giving love.
The book concludes with a chapter titled “Love Alone is Credible”, which is, of course, a reference to the work of the same name by twentieth century Swiss theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar. In this final chapter, Zahnd simply summarises and emphasises what the writer of 1 John summed up in three words: God is love. Zahnd helps us see how, far from being a warm, fuzzy bit of sentiment, this truth is the pinnacle of Christian theology and the only star by which we should navigate.
I cannot recommend Sinners highly enough. The content is compelling and prophetic, but Zahnd is never preachy or strident; rather, he delivers his message with the care of a pastor and the sensitivity of a poet. If you’ve already rediscovered the scandalous truth of the very good news, this book will delight and encourage you. If you’ve been put off by the angry God and his angry followers, this book will offer you hope. And if you’re keen to share the good news with others in a format that is profound yet accessible, look no further.
I’ll leave the final words to Zahnd himself:
“In the conclusion of his “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” sermon, Jonathan Edwards says, “The axe is in an extraordinary manner laid at the root of the trees, that every tree that brings not forth good fruit, may be hewen down, and cast into the fire.” And I say, “Amen.” I thank God that the theological tree that produced the bitter fruit of belief in an angry, violent, retributive God has at last been hewn down and cast into the fire. In my life the poisonous tree of angry-God theology is now gone. In its place grows the tree of life, a tree whose leaves bring healing. It’s a tree that looks like it once may have been an ugly cross, but it is now beautiful and verdant, producing the fruit of eternal life. Planted by the Father himself, this tree is an everlasting reminder that I am a forgiven sinner now being healed in the hands of a loving God.”
(Brian Zahnd, Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, 207)
[I was kindly provided with a review copy of Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God by the author. I was not required to write a positive review.]