Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God | Review & Notes

Brian Zahnd. Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God: The Scandalous Truth of the Very Good News. WaterBrook, 2017. (209 pages) Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, post.


I have great appreciation for what Zahnd has produced, which is a counter-offer to the mid-18th century revivalist preachers’ “hellfire and brimstone.” The vision of Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God is compelling, and one that comports better with a reading of the Bible that is informed by its broader context, historically, culturally, and narratively. There’s plenty of wonderful quotes and summations that are worthy of deep consideration, and Zahnd invites us by the means of piercing questions, a mode of discourse that is Biblical, welcoming, and progressive.

However, the supporting hermeneutics behind Zahnd’s offering feel insufficient to the task he has taken on. It is not quite substantive enough to establish a foundation upon which his arguments could be given greater weight. At times (and I may be a bit unfair in this) his rhetorical approach is not much different from the preachers/teachers he is attempting to distinguish himself from, even as his conclusions are quite different. Sporadically, he simply asserts his contrarian thesis and states that the “other” idea is wrong. Thus, there is little (in this book) to support one’s belief that Zahnd’s analysis is superior, or “more accurate” (whatever that means). One can simply “like” it better. Which is fine, but more robust theological and hermeneutical work is required. (Fortunately for Zahnd, there is plenty else out there.)

Regardless, for the many who are weary of the era of guilt, shame, and condemnation in Christian expression, Zahnd’s voice is a welcome and contrarian stream of living water. As mentioned, there is much to appreciate. Just read others to support what Zahnd is doing here.

Below are my notes, interwoven with a few critical comments.


Foreword by Wm. Paul Young

If transformation is by the renewal of the mind and I have never changed my mind, then be assured I am actively resisting the work of the Holy Spirit in my life. Everyone who grows, changes. (xiv)

1. Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God

If (2) [Jonathan] Edwards could scare people into repentance, maybe I could too. Evangelism by terrorism. Conversion by coercion. (3)

Is God actually merciless in vengeance? Is God really an omnipotent Dr. Mengele inflicting eternal torture? I know we can cobble together disparate Bible verses to create this monstrous deity, but is it true? (5)

What I did know was that I liked Jesus, but I was really scared of his Dad, the faceless white giant with obvious anger issues who hurled Catholics and others who didn’t believe just right into the fires of Mount Doom. And presumably some of those hapless souls thrown into hell were Baptist kids who tried to believe in Jesus with their hearts but really only believed in Jesus in their heads. That kind of theology is a prescription for religious psychosis! (8)

The real question isn’t “Does it scare kids straight?” but “Is it true?” The real question isn’t “Does it motivate people to pray a sinner’s prayer?” but “Is it faithful to the God revealed in Jesus?” Is God accurately represented when depicted as a faceless and remorseless white giant whose anger fuels the raging flames of hell? (9)

As it turns out, God is neither menacing nor faceless. Jesus Christ is the face of the Father. … Jesus is the One who shows us the face, the countenance, the disposition, the attitude of the Father. (10)

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. (11)

Sometimes the Bible is 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. … What the Bible does infallibly is point us to Jesus. The Bible itself is not a perfect picture of God, but it does point us to the One who is. This is what orthodox Christianity has always said. (14)

[via: “Infallibly”? Hmm…]

We also need to keep in mind that the Old Testament doesn’t give us just one portrait of God but many. (14)

The Old Testament is often a theological debate with both sides making their case. (15)

In the Old Testament God is portrayed as both quick to anger and slow to anger. [Compare Psalm 2:12 and Exodus 34:6] It’s Jesus who settles the dispute. (16)

[via: “Settles”? Eh… Consider Jesus “cleansing the temple” in John 2, and being angry with the Pharisees in Mark 3.]

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. (16)

What I want you to know is that God’s attitude, God’s spirit, toward you is one of unwavering fatherly-motherly love. You have nothing to fear from God. God is not mad at you. God has never been mad at you. God is never going to be mad at you. And what about the fear of God? The fear of God is the wisdom of not acting against love. (19)

2. Closing the Book on Vengeance

So what’s going on here? Is genocide something God used to command but now God has reformed his ways? We already agreed that God doesn’t change, God doesn’t mutate. So if God used to sanction genocide, and God doesn’t change…well, you see the problem. You’ve been painted into a corner. (25)

So where do we go from here? Our options are limited. (25)

  1. We can question the morality of God. Perhaps God is, at times, monstrous.
  2. We can question the immutability of God. Maybe God does change over time.
  3. We can question how we read Scripture. Could it be that we need to learn to read the Bible in a different way?

For some there seems to be a fourth possibility: to simply ignore the whole thing, to pretend there is no problem. (26)

So if we don’t want a monstrous God who occasionally commands genocide, and if we don’t want a malleable God who is slowly mutating away from a violent past, how do we view the Old Testament? Something like this: 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. (30)

Perfect theology is not a system of theology; perfect theology is a person. Perfect theology is not found in abstract thought; perfect theology is found in the Incarnation. Perfect theology is not a book; perfect theology is the life that Jesus lived. (31)

The biblical history of Israel was a long narrative of threat and oppression. (36)

In this crucible of suffering a theology of justice was forged, but it also produced the slag of vengeance theology. (37)

Jesus didn’t finish the line. Jesus omitted the bit about “the day of vengeance of our God.” Jesus edited Isaiah like this:

…to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor,
   and the day of vengeance of our God.

We must constantly resist the temptation to cast ourselves in the role of those who deserve mercy while casting those outside our circle in the role of those who deserve vengeance. Jesus will have no part of that kind of ugly tribalism and triumphalism. Clinging to our lust for vengeance, we lose Jesus. But if we cay say amen to Jesus closing the book on vengeance, then Jesus will remain with us to teach us the more excellent way of love. (450

[via: “Closing the book”? Again, Zahnd posits absolute affirmations that are perhaps not warranted. Consider many New Testament condemnations, woes, and of course the Book of Revelation.]

3. Jesus Is What God Has to Say

When we speak of the Word of God, Christians should think of Jesus first and the Bible second. (50)

And so violent holiness can be justified as biblical. But for a Christian that doesn’t matter. We follow Jesus! (58)

[via: This is a bit of a straw man argument.]

It’s not biblical justice that we pursue but Christlike justice. Biblical justice may call for the punitive measures of stoning sinners and executing idolaters, but Christ clearly calls us to a higher ethic of mercy. (59)

[via: These kinds of dualities cause more problems than they solve. Even in this particular section, when supporting the movement of Jesus, he is using a “biblical framework” for his life and ministry.]

I love the Old Testament. I’m a million miles from the second-century heresy of Marcion who regarded the God of the Old Testament as a demiurge and wanted to eliminate the Hebrew Scriptures from the Christian canon. (60)

[via: Eh, perhaps a couple hundred miles?]

But I don’t regard the Old Testament as the perfect revelation of God, and I never read the Old Testament without Jesus. (60)

[via: But how did Jesus read the Hebrew Scriptures?]

Jesus is my sponsor for admission into the Old Testament. (Why else would a Gentile read the ancient Hebrew Scriptures?)

[via: Zahnd is pushing way too far here. First, second-century pagans/Gentiles commissioned the translation of the Hebrew scriptures to be installed in the Library of Alexandria. Second, we have the prominent example of the Ethiopian eunuch reading the book of Isaiah in Acts .]

The Bible is not perfect; parts of it are now obsolete.

[via: So, “obsolete” is a very different analysis from “culturally informed.” While I think I understand what Zahnd is saying, his choice of tone, posture, and even terminology is really difficult.]

We need to understand that the Bible is not an end in itself. The Bible is a means to an end but the end itself. Jesus said it this way: “You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me!” [John 5:39, NLT]

[via: Yes. Concur. Okay, we’re on the same page with that line ;-).]

Consider these chilling words from a speech given by none other than Adolf Hitler:

My feeling as a Christian points me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter. It points me to the man who once in loneliness, surrounded only by a few followers, recognized these Jews for what they were and summoned men to fight against them and who, God’s truth! was greatest not as a sufferer but as a fighter. In boundless love as a Christian and as a man I read through the passage which tells us how the Lord at last rose in His might and seized the scourge to drive out of the Temple the brood of vipers and of adders. How terrific was His fight for the world against the Jewish poison. Today, after two thousand years, with deepest emotion I recognize more profoundly than ever before–the fact that it was for this that He had to shed His blood upon the Cross. As a Christian I have no duty to allow myself to be cheated, but I have the duty to be a fighter for truth and justice. – [Speech delivered at Munich on April 12, 1922; from Norman H. Baynes, Ed., The Speeches of Adolf Hitler: April 1922-August 1939, vol. 1 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1942), 19.]

Reading the Bible Right

It’s a STORY
We’re telling news here
Keeping alive an ancient epic
The grand narrative of paradise lost and paradise regained
The greatest “Once upon a time” tale ever told
The beautiful story which moves relentlesly toward–
“They lived happily ever after”
Never, never, NEVER forget that before it’s anything else, it’s a story

So let the Story live and breathe, enthrall and enchant
Don’t rip its guts out and leave it lifeless on the dissecting table
Don’t make it something it’s really not–
A catalog of wished-for promises
An encyclopedia of God-facts
A law journal of divine edicts
A how-to manual for do-it-yourselfers
Find the promises, learn the facts, heed the laws, live the lessons
But don’t forget the Story

Learn to read the Book for what it is–
God’s great big wild and wonderful surprise ending love story (72)
Let there be wonder
Let there be mystery
Let there be tragedy
Let there be heartbreak
Let there be suspense
Let there be surprise
Let it be earthly and human
Let it be celestial and divine
Let it be what it is, and don’t try to make it perfect where it’s not

This fantastic story of–
With its cast of thousands
More like a Tolstoy novel than a thousand-age sermon
It’s a Story because we are not saved by ideas but by events!

Here’s a plot line for you: Death, Burial, and Resurrection
Yes, it’s a story–not a plan, not an ology or ism, but a story (73)

And it’s an amalgamated patchwork story told in mixed medium
Narration, history, genealogy
Prophecy, poetry, parable
Psalm, song, sermon
Dream and vision
Memoir and letter
So understand the medium, and don’t try so hard to miss the point

Try to learn what matters and what doesn’t
It’s not where and when Job lived
But what Job learned
In his painful odyssey and poetic theodicy
It’s not how many cubits of water you need to put Everest under a flood
But why the world was so dirty that it needed such a big bath
Trying to find Noah’s ark
Instead of trying to rid the world of violence
Really is an exercise in missing the point
Speaking of missing the point–
It’s not did a snake talk?
But what the damn thing said!
Because even though I’ve never met a talking snake
I’ve sure had serpentine thoughts crawl through my head (74)

Literalism is a kind of escapism
By which you move out of the crosshairs of the probing question
But parable and metaphor have a way of knocking us to the floor
Prose-flattened literalism makes the story small, time-confined, and irrelevant
But poetry and allegory travel through time and space to get in our face

Inert facts are easy enough to set on the shelf
But the Story well told will haunt you
Ah, the Story well told
That’s what is needed
It’s time for the Story to bust out of the cage and take the stage
And demand a hearing once again
It’s a STORY, I tell you!
And if you allow the Story to seep into your life
So that THE STORY begins to weave into your story
That’s when, at last, you’re reading the Bible right (75)

4. The Crucified God

Our capacity for imagining God seems virtually limitless. (78)

Jesus is not an idol; Jesus is not just one of many avatars of God; Jesus is the perfect icon of the invisible God! (79)

If the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is where humanity contracted death, then it’s at the tree of Calvary that humanity finds its cure. The cross is indeed the focal point of Christian faith. (80)

…the young secularist [Jürgen Moltmann] encountered  Jesus’s cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and thought, “Here is someone who understands me.” (81)

At the cross Jesus does not save us from God; at the cross Jesus reveals God as savior! (82)

The crucifixion of Good Friday isn’t an economic transaction; it is the torture and murder of an innocent man. This isn’t a business deal to balance the celestial books; it is a crime of cosmic proportions. (83)

It wasn’t an act of justice; it was a travesty of justice. It was a murder. (84)

Jesus didn’t die on the cross to change God’s mind about us; Jesus died on the cross to change our minds about God! It wasn’t God who required the death of Jesus; it was humanity that cried, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” When the world says, “Crucify him,” God says, “Forgive them.” [cf. 2 Corinthians 5:19] (85)

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. (86)

Calvary is not where we see how violent God is; Calvary is where we see how violent our civilization is. The justice of God is not retributive; the justice of God is restorative. Justice that is purely retributive changes nothing. (86)

Among the many meanings of the cross is this one: in the crucified body of Jesus we see the death of our mistaken image of God. God is not a monster. God does not have a monstrous side. God is whom we find in (90) the Word made flesh. (91)

…but only as a preliminary beginning. God desires us to grow beyond the rudimentary beginning of fear. (96)

[via: But is not “fear the beginning of wisdom”? (Proverbs 9:10) And, “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone.” (Ecclesiastes 12:13) I suppose Zahnd’s reply would be something along the lines of, “But that’s the Old Testament.”]

The peace of no longer being afraid of God has been hard won. It has come from relentlessly seeking to know God as he is revealed in Christ. It is not the result of a liberal, sloppy, pick-and-choose theology. Rather, it is the result of pushing through the dark outer courts of the fear of God into the holy of holies, where the love of God shines eternally and dispels all darkness. (97)

[via: Can we really say “it is not the result…”?]

5. Who Killed Jesus?

We are the ones who demand sacrificial victims, not God. (103)

[via: This is an incredibly ironic statement in light of our penal substitutionary atonement theories!]

Justice is not the punishment of a surrogate whipping boy. That’s injustice! (103)

Justice as the restoration of relationship is what the father called justice. (103)

Ritual sacrifice does not originate in the heart of God; it originates in the violent heart of humanity. (104)

[via: cf. Rene Girard and his work]

At the cross the principalities are stripped of their cloaks of legitimacy so that their naked bid for power is exposed to the world for what it really is. (107)

If we say that at the cross Jesus was being punished by God for our sins, it forces adherents of this theological system to say that what Jesus suffered in torture and crucifixion is what every person deserves. … But is that true? Is it true that every person deserves to be tortured to death? (107)

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. (109)

The work of accusation, condemnation, and torture is the work of the satan–the accuser. (11)

[via: And we become “satan” when we accuse God, yes?]

According to Jesus, the crucifixion is not charged against God but against Cain’s system of civilization. (113)

On Good Friday we see that our violent system of blame and ritual killing is so evil that it is capable of the murder of God. And once we see it, we can repent of it, be forgiven for it, and be freed from it. This is how the cross saves the world. (114)

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. … The cross is not about the wrath of God finding a suitable sacrifice. The cross is about the love of God offering humanity a way out of the vicious cycle of producing endless victims. (115)

6. Hell…and How to Get There

Hell has become a catchall word for however we imagine eternal punishment in the afterlife. But the Bible doesn’t talk near as much about the afterlife as we have imagined. (120)

[via: As I have noted elsewhere, Zahnd is mistaken when he writes, “Later the Valley of Hinnom became the city garbage dump, a place where the fires were never quenched and the maggots never died.” (p.123) That fiction arose in the 12th century C.E. with Rabbi David Kimhi. (cf. also Bible Places post) There is no archaeological evidence to support this view.]

It’s very eye opening to realize that in all the evangelistic sermons found in the book of Acts, none of them makes an appeal to afterlife issues. Not one. (125)

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. (126)

Life is not an elaborate testing center for afterlife placement based on theological acumen. (127)

What Jesus certainly does not say is that the sheep and goats are divided on the basis of who has and who has not said a sinner’s prayer! (129)

It should be noted that when Jesus talks about the kingdom of heaven, he is not talking about an afterlife kingdom in heaven but the reign and rule of God that comes from heaven. (130)

Jesus’s teaching on hell is basically this: if you refuse to love, you cannot enter the kingdom of God and will end up a lonely, tormented soul. If we take Jesus seriously as a teacher, we must never think the gospel is a means by which we can ignore God, scorn the suffering, mock the poor, and have everything turn out all right. If you want to know how to find hell, follow the path set by the rich man…you’ll get there. (135)

Hell is not God’s hatred; rather, hell has something to do with refusing to receive and be transformed by the love of God. (137)

Hell is the love of God refused. (140)

The gospel is not a perverse theological system in which good people are tortured by God for eternity. Christians must stop suggesting anything like that! (144)

No one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end. – Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life

7. Anthem of the Lamb

Its particular relevance has to do with Revelation’s intensely political nature. If there is one book in the Bible that is written specifically for Christians living as citizens in a superpower, Revelation is it. The Apocalypse brings the Bible’s most creative and powerful critique of the idolatry inherent within economic and military superpowers.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is more political than anyone imagines, but in a way that no one guesses. – Eugene H. Peterson, Reversed Thunder, 117

With astounding theatrics John in essence says, “Don’t get comfortable with the Empire! Remember it’s a beast! It’s Jesus who is the Savior of the world, not Caesar! The last best hope for the world is not Rome but the kingdom of Christ!” (152)

Revelation is a daring proclamation that Jesus Christ, not Julius Caesar or any other emperor, is the world’s true emperor and Savior. It’s the empire of Christ, not the empire of Rome, that is the eternal city. It’s the Pax Christi, not the Pax Romana, that brings true peace to the world. Revelation captures the conflict between competing claims on how (152) the world is to be ruled and saved. Revelation is a wild and creative portrayal of the clash between the beastly empire of Rome and the peaceable reign of the Lamb of God. (153)

The way of the Beast leads to Armageddon, while the way of the Lamb leads to the New Jerusalem. (154)

One of the ways of thinking about the book of Revelation is that it is an extremely elaborate political cartoon. (154)

Revelation isn’t about the violent end of the world; it’s about the end of the evil of violence. The book of Revelation doesn’t anticipate the end of God’s good creation; it anticipates the end of death-wielding empire. (155)

| Perhaps the best way to understand the book of Revelation is that it is a prophetic critique of civil religion. By civil religion I mean the religion of state where the state is the actual object of worshipCivil religion is religious patriotism. Christians are called to practice responsible citizenship but to renounce religious patriotism. (155)

John wants his readers, who he fears are slipping into a complacent complicity with Rome, to remember that Rome isn’t evil only when it persecutes Christians; rather, Rome is always evil because of its idolatry and injustice. Empire is always a direct challenge to the kingdom of God. (157)

8. War of the Lamb

Either we follow the Lamb into the shalom of New Jerusalem, or we follow the Beast into the horrors of Armageddon. We either listen to the Lamb or we listen to the frogs. The frogs know the way to another Armageddon. The Lamb leads the way to the beautiful city of peace. (170)

| This is how we understand the wrath of God and the will of God in the book of Revelation. (170)

We escape our addiction to endless Armageddons when we learn to follow the Lamb. (171)

Jesus wages war by self-sacrifice and by what he says. Jesus combats evil by cosuffering love and the word of God. (176)

9. City of the Lamb

What Abraham was looking for from the moment he left Ur of the Chaldeans is what Jesus is building. (185)

New Jerusalem is a marriage–the marriage of God and humankind, the marriage of heaven and earth, the marriage of garden and city. … The way of the beast points to the lake of fire. The way of the Lamb points to New Jerusalem. (192)

10. Love Alone Is Credible

Love alone is credible; nothing else can be believed, and nothing else ought to be believed. …

The first thing that must strike a non-Christian about the Christian’s faith is that it obviously presumes far too much. It is too good to be true: the mystery of being, revealed as absolute love, condescending to wash his creatures’ feet, and even their souls, taking upon himself all the confusion of guilt, all the God-directed hatred, all the accusations showered upon him with cudgels, all the disbelief that arrogantly covers up what he had revealed, all the mocking hostility that once and for all nailed down his inconceivable movement of self-abasement–in order to pardon his creature, before himself and the world. This is truly too much from the Good. – Hans Urs von Balthasar, Love Alone: The Way of Revelation

[via: There is also this version/translation: “The first thing that must strike a non-Christian about a Christian’s faith is that it is all too daring. It is too beautiful to be true: The mystery of being, unveiled as absolute love, coming down to wash the feet and the souls of its creatures; a love that assumes the whole burden of our guilt and hate, that accepts the accusations that shower down, the disbelief that veils God again when he has revealed himself, all the scorn and contempt that nails down his incomprehensible movement of self-abasement—all this, absolute love accepts in order to excuse his creature before himself and before the world. It is too much of a good thing;…” (pp. 83-84)]

The topography of biblical witness is full of peaks and valleys, mountains and plains. The Bible is not flat terrain. (201)

Soaring above everything else the Bible has to say about God are these twin peaks found in John’s first epistle: God is love. God is love. (201)

The change that occurred in may theology came about not by wishing for God to be something other than I assumed God was but from actually discovering God as revealed in Christ. (204)

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  1. Pingback: Another Gospel? | Reflections, Notes, & Critical Review | vialogue

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