What is God truly like? This is a question I have wrestled with. My whole life I have heard people say, and have said myself, that God is a God of love and of justice. Your sin deserves God’s eternal and unending punishment, or wrath. You can avoid this punishment by trusting in Jesus for in Jesus we see God’s love. In other words, God shows love to some and wrath to others.
To hold this understanding leads to some unavoidable questions. Does Jesus save us from a vengeful God? Is God’s love offered with a threatening fist raised to punish you if you do not accept? And if God tortures you for not accepting God’s love, how is God different from an abusive husband?
As I read Brian Zahnd’s book Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, I felt like I was reading my own questions and struggles. I deeply resonate with this book, and I almost want to say any Christian who is honest about the tension between God’s wrath and love should too. Zahnd writes with honesty and passion that lays it all right out there for the reader. This is not an academic book, nor will it answer every question, especially every question critics are sure to bring to it (though, as a sort of coincidence, I just started reading Greg Boyd’s Crucifixion of the Warrior God which is very similar to Zahnd’s work and is more academic, if anyone is interested in that). I appreciate Zahnd’s honesty for not dancing around the issues. For example, is it wrong to murder children? Of course. Was Hitler wrong to exterminate millions of Jews. Absolutely. So why do we then waffle if it is God in scripture who does those things? Is God a monster to order the extermination of children? Did millions of Jews pass from Hitler’s ovens to the unending fiery flames of God’s ovens in hell?
The idea here is one option we have when dealing with God’s wrath. Maybe God is a monster. Zahnd rejects this. The options more Christians might take is that God changes. God might have commanded the slaughter of the Canaanites but now God has become love. God does not work that way anymore. Zahnd rejects this on the principle that God does not change. At the same time, Zahnd also shows that many Christians utilize the book of Revelation to show that God has not really changed but that God really is merely a God of wrath. If Revelation portrays Jesus as returning to slaughter his enemies, then the question of what God is like finds its answer: God is wrath. Here the acts of Jesus on the cross, as well as throughout his life, do not reveal what God is really like. Instead Jesus is sort of a reprieve between the vengeful God of the Old Testament and the vengeful God of Revelation. God may offer forgiveness and love for a time, but this is merely temporary.
I think this understanding of God is too common among Christians in America. It is as if the Jesus in the Gospels, the Jesus who teaches love of enemy and then does it and demands we do the same, is too radical. Our human nature wants a vengeful God. The sad thing is that to fall back into a God of wrath is to take away what makes Jesus unique. Every culture and religion (okay, maybe not every one…I am using hyperbole here) has deities that enjoy wrath. Whether Babylon, Rome or America, these empires go to war with the belief that God blesses our weapons and fighting. The idea that God demands something different is so uncomfortable. So we welcome Jesus for forgiveness of our sins and a ticket to heaven, but find Jesus’ way too impractical for daily life.
Zahnd thus argues that the portrait of Jesus in Revelation does not contradict Jesus in the gospels. Instead, Jesus truly is the human face of God. Jesus revealed God. This is basic Trinitarian theology. Zahnd emphasizes over and over what this means though. The Bible is not a flat book where all parts are equal. The Bible is open to many interpretations, and you can easily find a violent God in there if you wish. But it is Jesus, God in the flesh, that regulates our understanding of the rest of the Bible. Because of how Jesus reveals God, we are forced not to say God is a monster or God changes, but to be open to the idea our understanding of the Old Testament has to change. This is one area where Zahnd could have spent more time, though it is also basically what Boyd’s book is about. In essence, we know what God is like in Jesus. When it comes to God’s love in Jesus and God’s order for wrath in the Old Testament, we go with Jesus. That may leave questions about what the Old Testament means, but those are questions we can live with since we now have Jesus in his proper place.
If questioning traditional interpretations of the Old Testament is not enough, Zahnd also questions traditional understandings of hell. First, I think he is right on in cautioning Christians against being confident of who is in hell. Jesus is Savior and Jesus will save all sorts of people. Second, he does not actually say much about the afterlife. Zahnd’s emphasis is on this life, including the hells we humans create. That said, it is clear that his understanding of God as Love means the door is never closed on anyone, in this life or the next. If a person turns away from their self-centeredness and desires to know God, God will welcome that person. As the book of Revelation says, the gates of the New Jerusalem are never closed, so presumably people can enter at any time. God’s love means God is, like the Father in the parable of the prodigal, always willing to welcome anyone. The problem is that we, like the son, are slow to go home. I suppose Zahnd is not a big enough name to get criticized the way Rob Bell did with Love Wins (which I am pretty sure many of his critics did not bother to read), but he sounds a lot like Bell here.
Overall, I loved this book. Even if you do not agree with some of Zahnd’s conclusions, I think the questions he is raising are worth your time. Does God send people to an eternal torture chamber, worse than anything Hitler devised? Does God change? How do we understand passages of the Old Testament, such as the Canaanite genocide, in light of Jesus? What, ultimately, is God really like? Is God’s love and forgiveness in Jesus just a parenthesis between lots and lots of wrath? Or is Jesus truly the human face of God?
Finally, most of my qualms with this book come down to editing. Zahnd’s foil here is Jonathan Edwards, the title of the book is even a modification of one of Edwards’ sermons. After the first chapter or so, Zahnd begins mentioning John Calvin and Calvin’s ideas. Unless I missed it, he never quoted Calvin. Perhaps Calvin is a stand in for Calvinism, though Calvinism is broad. Maybe Puritanism? John Piper? I am sure Calvin is closer in theology to Edwards than Zahnd, but bringing Calvin in with little introduction seemed sloppy. Likewise, there were a couple other references with no note. He mentioned William Wallace once, a clear allusion to Braveheart and a strain of Christianity that lifts up Wallace as an ideal man (John Eldredge’s Wild at Heart). Was this connection I made what Zahnd hoped for? Again, either editing or something would have cleared this up.
I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review