Review: Examining the gospel we preach

Here’s yet another book challenging the gospel represented by Jonathan Edwards’ famous 18th century sermon, Sinners in the hands of an angry God, with its theme of retributive justice and divine violence. It is:

Sinners In The Hands Of A Loving God: The scandalous truth of the very good news by Brian Zahnd (WaterBrook, 2017).

sithoalglarge_It’s a book about how we should read and interpret the Bible, and the nature of the gospel—the ‘good news. Edwards’ sermon was graphic in its description of God’s intense hatred of us because of our sin, and of his determination to fry us for ever in the inextinguishable fires of hell. But, asks Brian Zahnd, is this true? He concludes that it most certainly is not! Jesus, who alone is the final revelation of God’s nature, presents his Father in a different light altogether.

He tackles the topic of ‘the wrath of God’ directly, as he does the Bible passages that Jonathan Edwards-types typically lean on, and sheds helpful light on their meaning. He also faces up to OT ‘violence’ texts like God’s request to Abraham to kill Isaac, and the command to Joshua to commit genocide on the Canaanites. If we have problems with those issues we have to (1) Question God’s morality; or (2) Question God’s immutability; or (3) Question how we read Scripture. The latter is the way to go!

Zahnd gives many documented examples from history of how people leaned on the Bible to justify the most appalling atrocities—Adolf Hitler among them. Not the Bible, but the Christ to which it points, is God’s final word and it is upon him, not it, that we should lean.

The book deals with the fraught question of ‘Who killed Jesus?’ It certainly wasn’t the Father, it concludes! And it looks in detail at the ‘hell’ question. Yes the wicked (which means ‘wicked’, and does not mean all who have failed to ‘accept Christ’) will end up in an afterlife hell—but whether than means endless torture is quite another matter. Zahnd speaks a lot of good biblical sense on this.

Then he takes a searching look at the book of Revelation—long the favourite book of violence-loving Christians. There, he points out, it is the self-sacrificing Lamb who triumphs; the Lion is the Lamb. He pours scorn on dispensationalism and its sick longing for the horrors of Armageddon as the only way forward. ‘God is love’—that is the true bottom line. 

This is a well-written and thought-provoking book that will enhance your grasp of the good news you are called to preach, making it ‘better news’ than it appeared to be before.

Here are some quotations.

God is like Jesus! God is not a sadistic monster who abhors sinners and dangles them over a fiery pit. God is exactly how Jesus depicted him in his most famous parable: a father who runs to receive, embrace, and restore a prodigal son. (p11)

Christians are to believe in the perfect, infallible, inerrant Word of God—and his name is Jesus. (p13)

The Bible itself is not a perfect picture of God, but it does point us to the One who is. This is what orthodox Christianity has always said. We also need to keep in mind that the Old Testament doesn’t give us just one portrait of God but many. It’s impossible to make the Old Testament univocal. (p14)

In the Old Testament God is portrayed as both quick to anger and slow to anger. It’s Jesus who settles the dispute. (p15)

We easily acknowledge that God is not literally a rock and not literally a hen, but we have tended to literalize the metaphor of divine anger. (p16)

The revelation that God’s single disposition toward sinners remains one of unconditional love does not mean we are exempt from the consequences of going against the grain of love. When we live against the grain of love we suffer the shards of self-inflicted suffering. This is the “wrath of God.” (p18)

God does not hate you, and God will never harm you. But your own sin, if you do not turn away from it, will bring you great harm. The wisdom that acknowledges this fact is what we call the fear of God. (p19)

In answering with an unequivocal no to the question of whether you would kill children, are you claiming a moral superiority to the God depicted in parts of the Old Testament? (p25)

Clinging to the idea that if God commands genocide it’s not immoral opens the door for all manner of atrocity to be justified in the name of God, something the human race has proved itself all too adept at doing. Persecutions, pogroms, crusades, and the Shoah are all the bitter fruit of this corrupt seed. ISIS may justify killing children in the name of God, but followers of Jesus must never do this. Never! (p26)

It’s Jesus, not the Bible, that is the perfect revelation of God. (p29)

As Israel was in the process of receiving the revelation of Yahweh, some unavoidable assumptions were made. One of the assumptions was that Yahweh shared the violent attributes of other deities worshiped in the ancient Near East. These assumptions were inevitable, but they were wrong. For example, the Torah assumed that Yahweh, like all the other gods, required ritual blood sacrifice, but eventually the psalmists and prophets take the sacred text beyond this earlier assumption. (p30)

We should acknowledge that in the late Bronze Age, Israel made certain assumptions about the nature of God, assumptions that now have to be abandoned in the light of Christ. (p34)

The Hebrew prophetic tradition developed in the crucible of enduring threat, invasion, and oppression from Gentile empires. In this crucible of suffering a theology of justice was forged, but it also produced the slag of vengeance theology. (p36)

Certainly there is divine judgment, but it is a judgment based on God’s love and commitment to restoration. The restorative judgment of God gives no warrant to a schadenfreude yearning to see harm inflicted on others. Jesus has closed the book on that kind of lust for vengeance. (p44)

The Bible is the penultimate word of God that points us to the ultimate Word of God who is Jesus. (p50)

[Re the transfiguration]  When Peter, James, and John looked around on Tabor after the voice from heaven had spoken, they saw only Jesus. This is significant. To say it as plainly as I know how, the Old Testament is not on par with Jesus. The Bible is not a flat text where every passage carries the same weight. (p53)

I remember preaching on Jesus’s call to the practice of radical forgiveness and being challenged by a church member who said, “Yeah, but the Bible says, ‘An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.’ ” I had to explain to him that a Christian can’t cite Moses to silence Jesus. (p55)

Wars of conquest, violent retribution, the institution of slavery, and women held as property are all biblical. But when placed in the light of Tabor these primitive assumptions must be renounced. (p59)

A Biblicist reading of the Bible can be a clever way of hiding from the rule of Christ. (p62)

In the light of the crucified and risen Christ, torture stands condemned as evil and barbarous, and it doesn’t matter in the least that a text from Ecclesiastes says there’s a time to kill and hate. (p66)

The Bible is not univocal about violence. It says “There is…a time to kill” and “Thou shalt not kill.” The Bible says “Show no mercy to them” and “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” Are these contradictions? Of course they are! And it’s a fool’s errand to try to reconcile all the disparate things the Bible says about violence. But there is a trajectory in the Bible, a movement away from violence as normative and toward God’s peaceable society where swords become plowshares and spears become pruning hooks. (p67)

Unfortunately, over the last thousand years, the Western Church has drifted into the idea that God required the violent death of his Son in order to satisfy his honor and pay off justice. (This theory was wisely rejected in the Eastern Church.) (p82)

Who is this tortured man, nailed to a tree, suffering a violent death? Incredibly Christians say this is God! The crucified God. If we don’t find this scandalously shocking, we have grown far too familiar with the crucifixion of Jesus. (p83)

The apostle Paul tells us that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself.” This should not be misunderstood as God reconciling himself to the world. It wasn’t God who was alienated toward the world; it was the world that was alienated toward God. Jesus didn’t die on the cross to change God’s mind about us; Jesus died on the cross to change our minds about God! It wasn’t God who required the death of Jesus; it was humanity that cried, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” When the world says, “Crucify him,” God says, “Forgive them.” (p85)

The justice of God is not retributive; the justice of God is restorative. Justice that is purely retributive changes nothing. (p86)

In Christ we discover a God who would rather die than kill his enemies. (p87)

The term God of the Bible does not give as coherent a picture as we like to pretend. Is the God to whom the Bible points chiefly revealed as infinite anger or as immeasurable love? It’s possible to read the Bible in support of both. What we need is a way to center our reading of Scripture. We do this by reading from the center of salvation history: the cross. (p89)

A good deal of atheism is protest atheism. The protest atheist is essentially contending that the angry god of ritual appeasement should not exist. And I agree. (p92)

In what is called the fear of God, what I fear is not God but the suffering my sin can inflict on myself and those around me. What God calls me to fear is the destructive results of sin—and I take God seriously. The shorthand term for this is the fear of God. (p96)

Jesus was killed by the principalities and powers, a term used by the apostle Paul to describe the very powerful, the very rich, the very religious, the institutions they represent, and the spirits that operate within these institutions. Jesus was put to death by the structures of political, economic, and religious power represented by Pontius Pilate, Herod Antipas, and Joseph Caiaphas. (p99)

Among the many problems of Calvin’s theory of the cross is that it turns God into a petty tyrant and a moral monster. Punishing the innocent in order to forgive the guilty is monstrous logic, atrocious theology, and a gross distortion of the idea of justice. (p101)

Viewing the cross as payment to God for our personal debt of sin ignores the deep problem of systemic sin. When we turn the cross into a payment for our personal sin debt to an offended God, we leave unchallenged the massive structures of sin that so grotesquely distort humanity. (p106)

What sinners need (shall we say deserve?) is love and healing, not torture and death. We are worthy of God’s love and healing not on the basis of personal merit but because of the image we bear: the very image of God. Original blessing is more original than original sin! (p108)

We are so addicted to the idea of redemptive violence—problem solving by killing—that it even infects our theology of the cross. (p109)

At one point a clearly frustrated Jesus said to the Pharisees, “You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell [Gehenna]?” Indeed they did not escape! In AD 70 the Roman general Titus destroyed Jerusalem, killing hundreds of thousands in the process. In the smoldering, corpse-strewn ruins of the city, the fires were not quenched and the maggots did not die. Jerusalem had gone to hell…again. (p123)

It’s very eye opening to realize that in all the evangelistic sermons found in the book of Acts, none of them makes an appeal to afterlife issues. Not one. (p125)

When Jesus does speak of an afterlife hell (most extensively in the parables of the rich man and Lazarus and of the sheep and the goats), he is making this point: it is the wicked who end up being condemned. And we need to recognize that Jesus uses the word wicked in a conventional sense: the wicked are those who live wicked lives, inflicting evil upon others. Jesus does not use the word as a technical term for all of humanity except those who have “accepted Jesus into their hearts.” Jesus does not use wicked as a synonym for non-Christians! The idea that all non-Christians are wicked is the result of some very arrogant and deeply mistaken theological systems. (p126)

The first part of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus was an existing Jewish folk tale; there are seven versions of it in rabbinic writings. But Jesus supplies his own twist to the parable by adding the bit about the five brothers. The effect of this new addition is to pull the story back into this present life. (p133)

In the final scene [of the story of the Prodigal Son], the older brother is outside the father’s house, gnashing his teeth in resentment and rage. The father has not exiled his elder son to the outer darkness; rather, in his refusal to forgive, the embittered brother has exiled himself. (p135)

Hell is not God’s hatred of sinners; God has a single disposition toward sinners, and that is love. God is always the loving father of both the prodigal younger son and the resentful older son. He always loves them both. Hell is not God’s hatred; rather, hell has something to do with refusing to receive and be transformed by the love of God. (p136)

Let’s say I have an enemy whom I deeply despise; my heart is filled with nothing but bitter contempt for my enemy. And let’s say that I wind up destitute, living on the streets. I’m friendless and homeless, hungry and thirsty. Then my despised enemy finds me on the streets, takes me into his home, and gives me food and drink as acts of co-suffering love. If I respond to my enemy’s love with entrenched hatred, these acts of kindness are a source of torment; they burn me up. Hot coals of resentment are lodged inside my head. I am tormented. I’ve turned heaven into hell. When hate wins, hell is inevitable. But what if I will repent, if I will change my thinking, change my heart, if I will say, “Why am I acting this way? This man is not my enemy. He’s a good person. He has nothing but love for me. I repent. I’ll stop resisting him as my enemy and receive him as my friend”? If I do that, what had previously been a source of bitter torment becomes the warmth and delight of a shared meal with a dear friend. What had been hell turns into heaven. This is close to how I understand hell. Hell is the love of God refused. (p139)

The gospel is the joyful proclamation that the kingdom of God has arrived with the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The gospel is the audacious announcement that Jesus is Lord and that the world is to now be reconfigured around his gracious rule. The gospel is the beautiful story of how God is bringing the world out of bondage to sin and death through the triumph of Jesus Christ. If you don’t know how to preach the gospel without making appeals to afterlife issues, you don’t know how to preach the gospel! (p143)

The Apocalypse brings the Bible’s most creative and powerful critique of the idolatry inherent within economic and military superpowers. (p150)

The Revelator’s composition is intended somewhat to comfort but mostly to warn Christians who were getting too cozy with the Roman Empire. (p151)

Revelation is a daring proclamation that Jesus Christ, not Julius Caesar or any other emperor, is the world’s true emperor and Savior. It’s the empire of Christ, not the empire of Rome, that is the eternal city. It’s the Pax Christi, not the Pax Romana, that brings true peace to the world. (p152)

The only way to consistently interpret the book of Revelation is to acknowledge that everything is communicated by symbol. (p153)

Perhaps the best way to understand the book of Revelation is that it is a prophetic critique of civil religion. By civil religion I mean the religion of state where the state is the actual object of worship. Civil religion is religious patriotism. Christians are called to practice responsible citizenship but to renounce religious patriotism. (p155)

John the Revelator tells us that Rome’s claim of a divine right to rule the nations and of a manifest destiny to shape history is the very thing that God has given to his Son, Jesus Christ. (p156)

Over the years I’ve heard countless sermons and songs about the Lion and the Lamb in the book of Revelation. But they’ve missed the point. There is no lion in Revelation, only a Lamb…a little slaughtered Lamb. Jesus is the Lion of the tribe of Judah only in that he is a descendant of the tribe of Judah. (The lion was the symbol of the tribe of Judah.) But when we look for Jesus to be a lion, we see only a Lamb. Jesus is King of kings and Lord of lords; he reigns not as predatory lion but as a sacrificial lamb. (p161)

The phenomenon of modern dispensationalism with its endorsement of supposed divine and unavoidable hyperviolence is such an ugly and perverse eschatology that it’s unworthy of the name Christian. (p165)

If you believe there must be a megawar in the Middle East before Jesus can return, you’re going to be a lousy peacemaker! (p171)

A Left Behind theology of Revelation turns the Lamb into a beast! It turns a text that was intended to subvert empire into a text that endorses empire. There is not a worse possible abuse of the final book of the Bible than this! (p173)

John stresses that Jesus reigns through self-sacrifice by depicting the white horse’s rider as wearing a robe drenched in blood before the battle begins. Jesus’s robe is soaked in his own blood. Jesus doesn’t shed the blood of enemies; Jesus sheds his own blood. This is the gospel! (p176)

[Re Noah’s flood]  In an attempt to solve the problem of exponential violence, God intervened with his own violence. Salvation by tsunami. Human violence washed away by a divine deluge…  God’s attempt to solve the problem of violence by violence didn’t work. So God began a new plan and called the son of Terah. Enter Abraham. (p184)

With Easter and Pentecost, New Jerusalem began its slow but inexorable annexation of the old empires of death…  Today it is the task of every local church to be a kind of suburb of the New Jerusalem here and now. (p188)

I believe in hell. I believe in hell here and now, as Jesus taught, and I believe in the possibility of self-exile from the love of God in the afterlife, as Jesus indicated. But the notion that God, out of personal offense and infinite spite, inflicts eternal torture upon his wayward children is completely incompatible with the revelation of God in Christ. (p206)

 

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