Brian Zahnd was a big fan of the Angry God. As a young pastor, he carried around a handwritten copy of Sinner’s in the Hands of an ANGRY GOD, Jonathan Edwards’s famous sermon. He memorized portions of the sermon, in order to give preaching more of an edge, so he could draw sinners to repentance as Edwards had done. However, Zahnd since discovered the Father revealed to us through Jesus Christ is not the violent, angry, retributive monster god articulated in Edwards’s sermon.
Wrestling with issues like Old Testament genocide, Jesus crucifixion, eternal punishment in hell, and the final judgment, Zahnd re-presents to us the Christian God—a God who is Love, not wrath. But just because the God Zahnd now preaches is loving, not angry, doesn’t mean he doesn’t deal with sin. We are Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God. The monsters are the things that keep us from finding our life in Him. Zahnd writes:
Today my handmade copy of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is stored safely away among other memorabilia. I’m no longer mining it for material to terrorize sinners. The monster god has faded away and today I preach the beauty of God revealed in the face of Christ. But that doesn’t mean there are no monsters. The monsters of war, violence, greed, exploitation, racism, genocide, and every other form of antihuman abuse continue to inflict our species with unimaginable suffering. If we try to manipulate these monsters for our own self-interest, they eventually turn on us and destroy us. (22).
Zahnd’s book unfolds in 10 chapters. Chapter 1 describes Zahnd’s shift from believing in the mere angry God, to believing in the loving God. Chapter 2 examines how Jesus closed the book of vengeance by emphasizing the “Jubilee good news of pardon, amnesty, liberation, and restoration” (44) in his reading of the Old Testament. Chapter 3 discusses the importance of interpreting the violent and troubling passages through the lens of Jesus.
Chapters 4 and 5 discuss the meaning of Christ’s crucifixion. Zahnd eschews interpretations of the cross that appeal to fear-mongering, instead, the cross emphasizes the love of God:
I’m not afraid of God. I used to be, but I am no longer. I am no longer afraid of God because I have come to know God as he is revealed in Christ. I have come to know that God’s single disposition toward me is not one of unconditional, unwavering love. The knowledge of God’s love has made it impossible for me to be afraid of God. (97).
As such, Zahnd does not believe that the Father was a blood-thirsty God demanding Jesus death in order to save some. No, Zahnd argues:
When we say Jesus died for our sins, we mean something like this: We violently sinned our sins into Jesus, and Jesus revealed the heart of God by forgiving our sins. By saying “we” violently sinned our sins into Jesus, I mean that all of us are more or less implicated by our explicit or tacit support of the systems of violent power that frame our world. These are politically religious systems that orchestrated Jesus’s death. At the cross we see how Adam and Eve’s penchant for shifting blame and Cain’s capacity for killing led to the ultimate crime : the murder of God (109).
In chapter 6, Zahnd describes the doctrine of Hell. As with the Angry God, Zahnd used to like Hell a lot but observes that many (evangelical) interpreters make Jesus’ word’s of judgment about the afterlife when he intends to talk about injustice and consequences in this life. He also challenges as fundamentalist fiction the notion that the sufferers of Auschwitz or godly non-Christians (like Abraham Heschel) are consigned to eternal torment (144-45).
chapters 7 through 9, describe Jesus, the Lamb of Revelation and the final judgment. Chapter 10 forms the conclusion: “Love alone is credible.”
Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God is similar to other recent books which question the traditional Angry God of evangelicalism. I think of recent publications from Brad Jerzak, Greg Boyd, Thomas Oord, Keith Giles, Rob Bell. People who love John Piper (and are therefore more Reformed than God) will not like this all that much. If you feel, as many of my Reformed friends, that we are only drawn to God by feeling the weight and cost of our sinfulness, then you won’t enjoy this book. However, if you believe, as I do that, that it is God’s kindness that leads to repentance(Rom.2:4), then you will be challenged and inspired by Zahnd’s words.
Zahnd does emphasize the here and now sometimes at the expense of the Hereafter. Of course, historically evangelicals have done the reverse, speaking only of pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die-when-you-abide-in-the-great-by-and-by. Both this age and the age to come are part and parcel of the gospel of the Kingdom which Jesus preached, and I think it is appropriate to speak of the former alongside the latter. I also wonder if Zahnd under-emphasizes some of God’s anger. It is always the loving who get angry, and I think it makes sense to still speak of an angry God in that context. Still, it is not as though Zahnd ignores human sinfulness and its destructive power for human souls.
I have talked with too many people whose experience of evangelicalism is one of judgment, anger and wrath. I recommend this book (along with books like Brad Jersak’s A More Christlike God) as representative as a more gracious depiction of biblical orthodoxy. I give this four stars. ★★★★
Notice of material connection: I received this book from Waterbrook Multnomah through the Blogging for Books program in exchange for my honest review