Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God: The Scandalous Truth of the Very Good News. By Brian Zahnd. Colorado Springs, CO: Waterbrook, 2017. 209 pp. Paper, $14.99.
This book gives no indication of any theological education by Zahnd. A website search indicates that he is self-taught.
Regardless of education, Zahnd is a very good writer. He draws the reader in, even the reader who strongly disagrees with what he is saying. He is clearly a very intelligent man and a gifted communicator.
The back cover shows the false dichotomy addressed in this book: “God is wrath? Or God is love?” Throughout the book, Zahnd rejects the idea that God is ever angry, that He ever destroyed or ordered the destruction of entire populations, that large numbers of people will be killed by God during the Tribulation, or that Jesus will be a conqueror when He returns.
Of course, it is true that God is not wrath. He exercises wrath. But that is not part of His eternal nature. He was never angry before the creation of angels and humans. He will never be angry again after the Great White Throne Judgment (cf. Ps 103:9). His anger is limited to the time of rebellion.
But none of that is discussed by the author. In fact, Zahnd believes that God never exercises wrath.
How could a pastor write such a thing when a simple word study shows that God often is angry? A concordance study shows that there are 27 references to the anger of the Lord in the Pentateuch alone. There are an additional 152 references to the anger of the Lord in the rest of the OT. How could someone who has read the Bible from cover to cover many times, as Zahnd says he has (pp. 48-50), miss this? Why couldn’t he just pick up a concordance?
What about the NT? There are 30 references to God’s wrath (orgē) in the NT, including references where the Lord Jesus is angry (Mark 3:5; Rev 6:16, 17) and where He warns of coming wrath (Luke 21:23). As we shall see, Zahnd thinks that Jesus never was angry and never will be angry.
Zahnd is not clear about what he thinks a person must do to become a Christian. My best guess is that he thinks that a person becomes a Christian by becoming a follower of Jesus (see, for example, p. 158, “loyal follower,” and p. 171, “follow the Lamb”). Concerning his own testimony, he says that “on a Saturday night in 1974” he became a “Jesus freak” when he had a “mystical encounter with Jesus” (p. 48).
Before we consider some of the more extreme unorthodox positions espoused by Zahnd, we should understand his method for determining what is true.
The author does not do word studies. He does not check his statements against the Word of God, at least not the Bible. Zahnd believes that “the Bible is the word [sic] of God in a secondary sense, faithfully pointing to the perfect Word [sic] of God: the Word [sic] made flesh” (p. 50). The Bible is not “the perfect Word of God.” Instead, the Bible is an imperfect “word of God in a secondary sense.” “Christians are to believe in the perfect, infallible, inerrant Word of God—and his name is Jesus” (p. 13). So Zahnd checks his views against his understanding of who Jesus is. He does not need to study the Bible to determine his theology.
So how does he determine who Jesus is if he doesn’t discover this in the Bible? Zahnd tells us: “But it wasn’t primarily reading theologians like Hans Urs von Balthasar [Catholic mystical theologian], Henri Nouwen [Catholic mystical spiritual director and activist], and Stanley Hauerwas [an ethicist and non-violent theologian] that led me away from an angry-God theology; it was mostly mystical experiences in prayer. As I learned to directly experience the presence of God in contemplative prayer—or sitting with Jesus, as I describe it—I have come to know God as light and love. I have seen the face of God in Jesus” (p. 204, emphasis added). (For more on his practice of contemplative prayer, see pp. 97, 205-26.)
Here are some of the pillars of Zahnd’s theology, derived from his mystical experiences:
1. Jesus did not have to die on the cross or shed His blood for our salvation and forgiveness (pp. 91-92).
2. God the Father did not want Jesus to go to the cross (pp. 84, 91-92, 100-103, 115). Zahnd considers that teaching was derived from pagan child sacrifice practices through the ages.
3. God never intended Israel to offer animal sacrifices. Men thought up the idea of animal sacrifices, put that false teaching in the earlier parts of the OT, and then God later abolished the pagan practice (pp. 15-16, 30-31, 104-105).
4. Dispensationalism is “reckless eschatology,” a “hideous distortion,” and “hokum” (p. 171).
5. Revelation is not prophecy about “future geopolitical events” (p. 155).
6. Jesus will not kill 200 million when He comes again. (Actually, the Bible says He will kill over half the world’s population, likely five billion or more.)
7. The Bible has lots of contradictions in it (see, for example, pp. 15, 16, 67, 68, 69, 71). After citing various verses dealing with violence and mercy, Zahnd asks, “Are these contradictions?” (p. 67). His answer? “Of course they are! And it’s a fool’s errand to try to reconcile all the disparate things the Bible says about violence” (pp. 67-68).
8. God never commanded the destruction of the Canaanites or anyone else (pp. 26-31).
9. A person does not need to be a Christian to avoid hell. All “good people” (p. 144) of all religions (or no religion) avoid hell (pp. 118-20, 144-45). He calls the idea that only Christians will avoid hell “an arrogant fundamentalist fiction, an ugly distortion inflicted upon Christian faith” (p. 145).
10. The author of the Book of Revelation “was almost certainly not John, the son of Zebedee, one of the twelves disciples” (p. 151).
11. Contemplative prayer is the key to renewing your mind and learning the true meaning of the Word of God and the word of God (pp. 204-206).
12. The Bible is not our final authority: “If we want to make the Bible our final authority, which is an act of idolatry, we are conveniently ignoring the problem that we can make the Bible say just about whatever we want” (p. 63). Amazingly, that is precisely what Zahnd himself does.
13. The Bible needs saving: “Jesus is the Savior of all that is to be saved…including the Bible. Jesus saves the Bible from itself! Jesus shows us how to read the Bible and not be harmed by it. Jesus delivers the Bible from its addiction to violent retaliation” (p. 57, emphasis added). “I don’t regard the OT as the perfect revelation of God” (p. 60). “There needs to be some way of adjudicating what texts are definitive in the Bible, especially on 4. Dispensationalism is “reckless eschatology,” a “hideous distortion,” and “hokum” (p. 171).
14. “The Bible is not the perfect revelation of God: Jesus is. Jesus is the only perfect theology. 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” (p. 31).
15. There is no such thing as eternal, conscious torment (ECT): “It is such a ludicrous notion that the God who is love would of his volition inflict torment upon people eternally. The idea is so ridiculous that it is either hilarious or horrendous” (p. 206). “What I can say about hell is that we do not need to (and must not!) hold to a perverse doctrine that all non-Christians are subjected by God to eternal conscious torment…The gospel is not a perverse theological system in which good people are tortured by God for eternity” (p. 144).
I do not recommend this book for most believers. The book is an assault of the Bible and orthodoxy. Zahnd remakes Christianity into his own image of what it should be like. I do, however, recommend this book for pastors and Christian educators. They should be aware of what is going on in the emerging church movement. But let the reader beware. Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God is a dangerous book.
Robert N. Wilkin
Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society