Thursday, May 25, 2017

Sinners In The Hands Of A Loving God: A Must-Read Review

I first encountered Jonathan Edward's sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" while taking an American Literature class in undergraduate school. It was a horrifying piece of writing that, according to accounts, had his congregation weeping and wailing and repenting to escape the terrors of hell fire and damnation. It also presented an angry, vengeful God who held sinners over the flames like a boy might an insect over a small fire.

Though it wasn't until college that I encountered Edward's sermon, I had come across this portrait of God when I was a young impressionable boy. It wasn't in the preaching or teaching of the Presbyterian church we first attended, but in something called a "Chick Tract" by a cartoonist named Jack Chick. I loved to draw cartoons and illustrations. I read comic books and newspaper cartoons voraciously. When my mother took me to a Christian bookstore in what used to be an old church, I noticed a rack of small comic books over by a staircase leading downstairs. It was roped off so customers couldn't go down there and the lights were off, so it was creepy to a young boy with an overactive imagination. This fear was worsened when I began to read this small comic books with titles like "This Was Your Life," "The Choice," "Are Roman Catholics Christians?" and  "The Beast." This were horrific comics that ended with a faceless God tossing people (sinners) into the fiery lake of hell. Why I kept reading them, I don't know but those comics deeply shook me, so much so, that when I put the last one back on the rack, I gazed down into the darkness of that lower level and fully expected to see hell.

But those tracts did great damage by making me wonder: Was this really how God was?

"Chick Tracts" along with some of the non denominational churches we would later attend, would further this angry God and how one could easily make the wrong choice and, should one suddenly die, and end up in eternal damnation.

I wasn't the only one to encounter this theology. In his latest book, Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, Brian Zahnd writes of his own experience with Jonathan Edward's sermon and Jack Chick's tracts. This book asks: Does God's wrath or God's love define Christianity?

It's a question I have been wrestling with for years. I believe that how we view God will impact not only our faith, but how we see others as well. If we view God as angry, vengeful, bloodthirsty and desiring retribution, then my attitude towards God is based out of fear and a desire to escape punishment. It also affects how I look at and treat other people, especially those who I consider nonbelievers or sinners. But if my perspective of God is one that is shaped by love, and not fear, then I will view all through the lens of His grace, mercy, compassion and, ultimately, through Christ.

All of scriptures must be read through the lens of Christ. If it matches with Jesus, then it reflects God, but if it doesn't, then it is not a reflection of our Creator but the creation. We see a lot of that throughout the Bible, especially in the Old Testament, where Israel projects onto God their fears, their hatreds, and their tribalism. So much of the God they present reflects both themselves and the pagan gods they saw in cultures around them.

On reflecting on the cross, Zahnd writes:

"God did not kill Jesus; we did. What God did was to raise Jesus from the dead and in Christ give us a new way of organizing the world. Instead of being organized around blame and ritual killing, the world is to now be organized around forgiveness and co-suffering love. The cross is not the place where God vents his wrath on Jesus. The cross is the place where human fear and anger are absorbed into God's eternal love and recycled in the saving mercy of Christ . . . The cross of Christ is the end of sacrifice. It's not the appeasement of a vengeful deity but the supreme demonstration of God's everlasting love."

Throughout this book, Brian Zahnd confronts the theology of God as loving and not one of vengeance, by using scripture and other theologians (from the early Church Fathers to Saint Augustine to C.S. Lewis). He covers everything from "The Crucified God" to hell (Hell is the love of God refused), heaven and the book of Revelation.

Which is the gospel?

A wrathful or a loving God?

Which would be good news if you were to hear it for the first time?

That is exactly what Brian Zahnd presents as he writes of his own story and how he came to embrace the reality that: I am a forgiven sinner now being healed in the hands of a loving God.

This book by Waterbrook has not yet been released, but will be on August 15, 2017.

Brian Zahnd's official website and blog:

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