Brian Zahnd has been on a theological and spiritual journey. And thankfully, he has taken any who are willing to go, with him. Much of this journey has been documented in his earlier books and through his sermons at Word of Life Church.
Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God continues to take us on this journey. Here Zahnd turns a traditional theological understanding of a vengeful God on its head. That is, the idea that God has utter contempt for humankind that was introduced by Jonathan Edwards in 1741.
Edwards’ sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, which I read for the first time in an American Lit class in college, is the main vehicle of this idea. A Puritan classic, the sermon is one of the prominent influences on American evangelicalism. Zahnd provides plenty of quotes from Edwards’ sermon in the opening chapter as he prepares the reader for the shift he is about to make.
As a college student majoring in religious studies, I was not sure what to do with Edwards’ sermon. My English professor preferred that I consider Edwards’ command of the English language and how he employed vivid imagery. Instead, I could not get over how this image of God was not the God I had come to know. Who is this God? I wondered. My God was not a God that dangled people over the fiery pits of hell. Rather, a God of love and grace.
Grace was emphasized in my faith journey.
For Zahnd and others, however, that was not the case. Zahnd and others whose stories are similar have preached the Edwards’ vengeful God. What followed was a time of wrestling between these two competing images of God. A struggle Zahnd has been open about in sermons and writings.
In Sinners, he is no longer wrestling. He has come to terms that God is a loving God. The Bible, after all, says God is love. This is his primary task: to upset the angry-God of Jonathan Edwards. In doing so, he upholds the God of love as shown in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.
Zahnd is a prophet and poet.
This aids him in his role as a guide through the thorns of troublesome theology. He frames his argument through the lens of love, not violence. At times he is the theological Led Zeppelin, challenging what is considered normative.
In addition, Zahnd holds a strong command of the Bible. He is a lover of the Book. He is able to articulate what various pieces of scripture are saying, in spite of how those verses have been used.
As a lover of the Bible, Zahnd cautions the Christian on putting a stronger emphasis on the Bible instead of Jesus Christ. He writes, “When we speak of the Word of God, Christians should think of Jesus first and the Bible second” (page 50). Further, Zahnd warns, “If we see the Bible as an end in itself instead of an inspired witness pointing us to Jesus, it will become an idol” (page 63).
“If there is one book in the Bible that is written specifically for Christians living as citizens in a superpower, Revelation is it.” (Brian Zahnd)
Finally, Zahnd tackles the last book of the Bible: Revelation. The Left Behind inspired view of the book is challenged when Zahnd simply states that “it is important to keep in mind that everything is told in the language of symbol.” Zahnd has more to say about this, hell, eschatology, and more. He does not veer from his purpose of reclaiming a gospel of love and peace from a gospel of vengeance and violence.
For those who are new to the Christian faith or to those who have been harmed by the Church, Zahnd is your guide through the messiness of religion. He will show you the grace-filled love of Jesus Christ. And he will affirm your own theology of a non-violent God.
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Thanks to Blogging for Books and the publisher for a review copy.