Book Review—Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God

What do you think of when you think of God? Where does your impression of God come from? Is He angry? Loving? Jealous? Mean? Kind? Waiting to strike you with lightning or toss you into a terrible place of eternal conscious torment if you don’t pray a get out of Hell free prayer to His Son? 

How do you know? How does your view of God affect your life? The lives of those around you? 

Jonathan Edwards’ Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God sermon preached on July 8, 1741 has had a profound effect on American Christianity and the way we view God. Scaring people into repentance became an artform, as preachers for the next several centuries modeled their approach to evangelism after Edward’s sermon. 

Brian Zahnd, author of Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God: The Scandalous Truth of the Very Good News begins by recounting his own former use of the sermon as a guide. And he gives us insight into Edward’s sermon with a portion of the famous spider passage—a depiction of God holding us over the fire like a spider ready to drop us in unless we repent.

But Is It True?

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Fortunately, Zahnd came to see the many flaws in John Edward’s depiction of God, which he dissects with the vital question “Is it true?”

That’s a question at the heart of those of us deconstructing. My own deconstruction has me asking Jesus three questions: Who are you Jesus, who do you say that I am, and what’s true?

Zahnd’s Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God is a breath of fresh air, looking at all three of those questions and infusing me with a renewed hope and belief I afraid I was losing. This book (along with Rob Bell’s What Is the Bible?) has kept me connected to Jesus throughout my questioning and given me a new more loving and gracious way to see God, Jesus, and the Bible.

God doesn’t look at us with anger; He looks at us with love.

God has a face and he looks like Jesus. God has a disposition toward sinners and it’s the spirit of Jesus. This is the beautiful gospel. God is not the faceless white giant of a Chick tract. God is like Jesus. God has always been like Jesus.There has never been a time when God was not like Jesus; we haven’t always known this, but now we do. God is like Jesus! God is not a sadistic monster who abhors sinners and dangles them over a fiery pit. God is exactly how Jesus depicted him in his most famous parable: a father who runs to receive, embrace, and restore a prodigal son. [...] This is why I deeply reject the horrid distortion of God given to us in the angry-God motifs.
— Pages 11-12

We have to be careful when we read the Bible because we can take things out of context to basically make it say anything we want it to say. We can pull parts of the Bible and put them together to make God look like an angry God, but if the God we paint doesn’t look like Jesus, then it’s not a true picture of God.

Sometimes the Bible is a like a Rorschach test: our interpretation of the text reveals more about ourselves than about God. However else we address the problem of proof-texting an angry God, we must always remember that any depiction of God, from whatever source, is subordinate to the revelation of God seen in Jesus.
— Page 14

But, What About…?

This revelation leads to so many questions, and Zahnd does an incredible job of asking and proposing answers to many of them including vengeance in the Bible, God’s wrath, why Jesus had to die and who actually killed Him, Hell, the “end times,” and how all of this affects the way we live.

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.
— Page 16
The role of the Old Testament is to give an inspired telling of how we get to Jesus. But once we get to Jesus we don’t build multiple tabernacles and grant an equivalency to Jesus and the Old Testament. [...] Jesus saves the Bible from itself! Jesus shows us how to read the Bible and not be harmed by it.
— Page 57

People have used (and continue to use) the Bible to harm people in many way, including the endorsement of slavery, subjugating women, violence and war. But when we read the Bible through Jesus, we get a different story. For example:

It’s not biblical womanhood that should inform women but the light of Christ. Much of the Bible operates from a cultural assumption that women are the property of their fathers and husbands. But Jesus elevates women to a status of absolute and independent equality.
— Page 59

And what about the cross? If God is loving and not angry, what was the point?
 

[...] it is not the quid pro quo to mollify an angry God. [...] At the cross Jesus does not save us from God; at the cross Jesus reveals God as savior! When we look at the cross we don’t see what God does; we see who God is!
— Page 82

“The only justice God will accept as justice is actually setting the world right! Justice is not the punishment of a surrogate whipping boy. That’s injustice!” Zahnd continues by pointing out that in the parable of the prodigal son the father doesn’t go off and beat someone else to vent his anger before forgiving his son. “No, in the story of the prodigal son, the father bears the loss and forgives his son from his treasury of inexhaustible love. He just forgives” (page 103). 

God is love. And the Bible is about love. Jesus shows us God’s love for us, and then shows us that the way to abundant life is to love God and love others. This is apparent even when looking at what the Bible says about Hell and the apocalyptic book of Revelation. 
 

We might even say that hell is the love of God wrongly received. [...] Hell is not God’s hatred; rather, hell has something to do with refusing to receive and be transformed by the love of God.
— Page 137

Zahnd believes that Revelation might be the most important book to the current American church, but not for the usual escapist, rapture, end of the world reasons. “For Christians living in an economic and military superpower and called by Christ to resist the idolatrous greed and militarism of empire, Revelation is supremely important” (page 150). 

Zahnd goes on to show how Revelation is not a literal step by step depiction of how the world will end with Armageddon followed by the arrival of the New Jerusalem. Rather it’s to show us that we have a choice. If we, as humanity, continue on the path of empire, greed, and war, rejecting Jesus’ way of peace, we will bring about Armageddon. Or we can choose Jesus’ way of peace and help bring about the New Jerusalem.

Who Should Read This Book?

You. 

I kind of think this book should be required reading for all Christians. Even if you don’t agree with everything Zahnd says (I’m not sure yet whether I agree with it all), it will give you good questions to ask, a new way of looking at things, and a look at the Bible and God through the lens of Jesus. 

You would particularly love this book if you are:

  • deconstructing your Christian faith
  • scared of an angry God
  • trying to reconcile who you know Jesus to be with what you’ve been taught the Bible says about God
  • afraid of Hell or Armageddon
  • interested in a loving God

If you do read (or have already read) this book, reach out in the comments here, on Facebook or Twitter @StephanieLong85, or email me. I’d love to chat without about the assertions Zahnd makes.

 

*I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review. My opinions are my own.