“Sinners In The Hands Of A Loving God” Book Review

Sinners in The Hands of a Loving God the provocative re-writing of the title of Jonathan Edwards famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is a book written by Brian Zahnd. I saw this particular book at my local library, the title caught my attention and after the initial eye roll, I checked it out.


The first thing I noticed was that Rachel Held Evans and Sarah Bessey reviewed the book favorably. Sarah Bessey being the author of the book “Jesus Feminist” and Rachel Held Evans being someone I responded to already when she said that Calvinism made her cry. So, it was no surprise that her review and praise would be featured in a seemingly anti-calvinist book.


The next thing you will find is that the foreword was written by Wm. Paul Young, who wrote the Shack and Lies we Believe about God, in which the latter he admits to being a universalist. (pg. 118) These associations mentioned below do not make Zahnd automatically wrong, but I think I could reasonably assume how the book was going to go based on who likes his work. (1 Corinthians 15:33)


Young goes on to figure out the great question of why Edwards could paint such beautiful pictures of God such as in his work “Charity and its fruits” but portray a vindictive God in his sermon. Young went on to blame this sermon on Edwards personal issues, such as being ostracized by his own congregation (due to his insistence on fencing the Lord’s table) and his advocacy for the indigenous tribal people, specifically the native americans.


It’s a foreword, so I don’t expect Young to interact on a deeper level than what he did say, however, it seems a bit disingenuous to not acknowledge that there are plenty of Christians who argue that God can be just and wrathful and loving at the same time, God isn’t limited to one attribute.


In the first paragraph, Zahnd recounts the time about his little arts and crafts project, where he used photocopies of Edwards sermon and made his own little booklet complete with highlights and all. That actually sounds pretty cool to me, I may copy his idea and do that myself someday. However, he ends the paragraph by referring to those as his “ANGRY GOD days” in comparison to his “Loving Father” days apparently. I suspected that I would encounter this false dichotomy often throughout this book.


On page 3 he made a statement that made me want to facepalm:


“If Edwards could scare people into repentance , maybe I could too. Evangelism by Terrorism. Conversion by coercion.”


This is not only a pitiful exaggeration but it misunderstands the sermon entirely. Edwards was not in the pulpit with a scary mask on trying to scare the unbelief out of people, he was merely telling people of the reality of what scripture teaches. His imagery was vivid and poetic, that is probably why it resonated in the mind more than your average matter-of-fact sermon. To compare poetic language that is simply restating truths of the Bible to “terrorism” is absurd, there is no comparison.  As far as coercion, the sermon is just words, Mr. Zahnd, no one was forcing anyone to do anything. They willingly attended the service, they willingly heard the words and they willingly reacted the way they did.

Zahnd then insults the literary nature of Edwards writing by finding it strange that Edwards sermon is taught in schools as a good example of descriptive writing. Here’s the thing, even if you don’t agree with the method of preaching or the doctrine Edwards is defending, it would be far from reasonable to deny that his writing was anything short of descriptive.

 Zahnd then quotes Edwards famous spider portion of the sermon, but doesn’t understand the disconnect when he makes snide remarks such as it making God into some “sadistic juvenile”. If Zahnd would have read Edwards observations on Spiders, he would realize that Edwards found their intricate webs as evidence of their design by God and that he thought they were a beautiful creation. This isn’t some “you’re like a bug, gross!” childhood insult, it actually has a double meaning. Today, we commonly have people who like and people who dislike. Spiders are commonly disliked but some people like them. What makes spiders worthy of dislike? Well, they scare people. So, as an analogy, your appeal that Edwards scared people into the kingdom would be equivalent to you calling him a spider. Edwards is using this same type of analogy when he compares us to spiders. Not that we scare God obviously, but that our sin is as repugnant to God as someone who hates spiders.

On Page 4, Zahnd questions whether God abhors sinners (Hey, Zahnd read Psalm 11, Proverbs 15, Romans 3, Romans 9, or Revelation 2 sometime) and scoffs at the idea of an eternal hell calling it “God’s torture chamber” and “the eternal auschwitz”. Besides being a disgusting comparison, the major difference is that we are all guilty before God (Romans 3:23) and the Jewish people were innocent against the depraved behavior of the Nazis in the concentration camps. You should probably apologize to people affected by the holocaust for comparing some mere words about Hell you disagree with to such a horrific event.


On Page 5, Zahnd refers to Edwards sermon as a “Horror-genre sermon” which I find funny but also kind of agree with because the reality of Hell is horrific but also because horror is my favorite genre, so it makes sense why I like it. (besides the fact that it is merely teaching biblical truth.)


Zahnd shows a misunderstanding when it views sermons like the one Edwards famously preached as a way to “scare someone into the altar call” perhaps not realizing that Charles Finney popularized the altar call and that Edwards would have been against such emotional manipulation. (Even though I’m sure you will accuse him of it for writing the sermon.)


Zahnd consistently repeats the false dichotomy that a God who desires to show his just wrath can’t also be a loving God. This limiting concept is due to Zahnd’s apparently applying over-anthropomorphism to the emotions of God as if they were filled with the faults that humans have. It reeks of Greek mythology level of reasoning, where a God can only have one feature, “The goddess of wisdom” or “the god of war.” In page 18, he reviews some biblical passages that are very clear that God is wrathful or displaying wrath and chocks them up to metaphor. How convenient that something that would contradict your entire premise for the book is a metaphor.

On page 34-35, Zahnd gives a nod to his master, Marcion, in disparaging the old testament and seeking to run away from any idea that God had commanded the slaying of the Canaanites and used the example of Jesus not reading the vengeful part of Isaiah’s text, the implication he gives is that Jesus was different and that God’s intention wasn’t vengeance.


Vengeance is mine saith the Lord

Vengeance is wrong, saith the Zahnd

 Zahnd tries to deny that he is anything like Marcion on page 60, but he ends his defense of himself by admitting that “I don’t regard the old testament as the perfect revelation of God” though earlier he says he believes its the word of God, I wonder how its the word of God and also not a perfect revelation from God? Inquiring minds would like to know. Chapter 4 in his work can be summed up as “hey this thing happened in the Old Testament” “But man, God is love!”

Page 101 Zahnd attempts to critique Calvin’s view of the cross, but he ends up Roger Olsoning it and just calling God a moral monster for pouring out his wrath on Jesus in our place. (Because that totally didn’t happen, right?) He says “Punishing the innocent in order to forgive the guilty is monstrous logic” Well, Jesus is innocent, we are guilty, what exactly happened on the cross, Zahnd? What was in that cup that Jesus prayed that he wouldn’t have to drink?
On Page 145, Zahnd denies that those who reject Christ will go to hell, because his feelings or whatever.

In the final paragraph, on page 207, Zahnd attempts to use Edwards words against him. That every tree that does not bear fruit will be axed down. He tries to reverse it and say that the tree of Edwards preaching, a.k.a. The “poisonous tree of angry-God theology” is now gone from his life in favor of being in the hands of a loving God. He started with the false dichotomy and ended with it, I congratulate him on his consistency to this fallacious premise.


In reality, God is love, God desires to show his wrath and God is not a moral monster. I will not pretend that there are easy answers to these questions, but what Zahnd presents is emotion over fact, false dichotomies and snide jabs at people who actually believe things in the Old testament aren’t just all metaphors when it contradicts “muh love” theology.


Constructive criticism is supposed to say something nice  too. So, Zahnd, the cover was nice.

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