For Lent this year I’m re-reading Brian Zahnd’s, “Sinners In The Hands Of A Loving God” and am talking here on the blog and podcast about the idea that God isn’t mad.
He’s not mad.
He never was mad.
He never will be mad.
Not at you.
Not at him.
Not at her.
Not at anyone, anywhere … ever.
I’ll be talking about a different idea from his book every week and the spiderweb of thoughts and ideas it’s creating in my own heart, mind, soul, and life. AND. About halfway through Lent (on April 1) I’ll release a podcast episode that I recorded a few weeks ago where I got to sit down and chat with Brian to pick his brain on things like the cross, why Jesus died, hell, and lots of other interesting things.
So, get ready for THAT.
For today, though, here’s the deal. And I’m going to say this as bluntly as I can, so brace yourself.
Before I say anything, let me say this: I grew up believing 1000% that God created a perfect world that was tainted by Adam and Eve’s sin. Their sin, then, infected all of humanity and that sin makes us so unpalatable to God that He can’t stand to look at us or be in our presence. Because God is so perfect and so holy and we are so imperfect and so unholy, our sin demands punishment.
God, though, loved me so much that rather than inflict His wrath on me, He sent His Son, Jesus, to die in my place.
To be mocked.
To be taunted.
To be flogged.
To be beaten.
To be brutally murdered.
So that I wouldn’t have to endure any of those kinds of things. All of my sins and all of my wrongdoings were put onto Jesus’ shoulders and nailed to the cross so that if I would “believe in Him” and “ask Him into my heart”, and say “the sinners prayer” then (and only then) would God shower me with His forgiveness and mercy and grace and bring me to heaven when I die instead of sending me to be tortured in the fires of hell for all of eternity.
This, I was taught, is the Good News – that Jesus died for my sins, that He took my punishment, that He was punished and beaten and tortured, that He absorbed God’s wrath so that I wouldn’t have to endure even an ounce of it.
Adam and Eve sinned.
I inherited their sin.
Someone has to pay.
I believe and escape wrath.
I don’t believe and I get an eternity of immeasurable pain.
In his famous sermon, “Sinners In The Hands Of An Angry God”, Jonathan Edwards (all the way back in the 1700’s) put it like this …
“The God that holds you over the pit of Hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; His wrath towards you burns like fire; He looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; He is of purer eyes that’s to bear to have you in His sight; you are ten thousand times so abominable in His eyes as the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours.”
Again, God’s mad. But if you believe in Jesus, that same angry God can somehow stomach you and will gladly let you into heaven.
Up until about 5 years ago, I held on super tightly to that belief - One Thousand Percent, without a doubt in my mind.
Now, though? 5 years later, I don’t really believe anything like that at all. Nothing close to it, really. In fact, I would say that such an explanation of the Good News (which, by the way in the world of theology is called the Penal Substitutionary Atonement Theory – I emphasize the word THEORY because that’s all that it is) is not only wrong and misguided, but severely destructive to a person’s understanding of God.
To be even more blunt, I don’t think Jesus died to save me from hell. I don’t even think there is a hell in the sense that a church person might typically describe it with fire and devils and torture. And I don’t think Jesus died to save me from God’s wrath. I don’t believe that He blocked me from God’s anger. And I don’t think that I need to believe a certain way so that I can spend eternity in a certain place. I don’t believe that God is mad. I don’t believe that God is full of wrath, holding it back until the last possible moment when He’s going to destroy the earth and make something new. I don’t believe that God is angry, mad, or demanding a blood sacrifice to cover the sins of humanity so that His anger can be appeased.
I don’t believe it.
And I should say that this isn’t a snap decision I made. I think that’s one of the things that probably annoys me the most in this season of my life. I’ve had some discussions with people about this stuff as well as the topic of hell, LGBTQ inclusion, etc. on Facebook over the last few months and one of the things that yanks my chain the hardest is when people who I rarely talk to fire off a message on Facebook calling me a heretic or someone who is “smoothing over the Gospel” to make it more palatable for people or someone who doesn’t do any research or really even know the Bible.
I mean, hold up.
Not to toot my horn, but I’ve been studying the Bible on a fairly serious level since I was 13 years old.
I’m 37 now and so for over 20 years I have been reading my Bible, reading all different kinds of books about the Bible and about topics like hell, LGBTQ, the atonement, theology, doctrine, etc. from various points of view. I have on my desk my “Precious Moments” New Kings James Bible that I was highlighting in when I was 13 years old.
My mom used to buy me Bibles, books about the Bible, take me to the local Christian bookstore once or twice a month to get new books, and did nothing but help feed my growing love and passion for this beautiful book that has pretty much become my life’s work.
I’ve received a Bachelor’s degree from a Bible college, a Master’s of Divinity degree from seminary, and am a few months away from receiving my Doctorate degree from seminary. I’ve studied under professors who I agree with, professors I don’t agree with, professors who have challenged me, made me angry, and pushed me to think deeper about issues and beliefs that I quite frankly really didn’t want to think deeper about. I’ve studied this stuff for school assignments and I’ve studied this stuff on my own. I’ve had countless phone calls, conversations, and have asked tons of questions to people who are much further down the road in understanding these things than I am.
So, yeah. I get really ticked when people dismiss all of that and act as if I’m just making snap decisions and posting thoughtless stuff on the What If Project, Facebook, etc. So, if you come at me with that kind of mentality – yes, I will most likely jump down your throat.
All that to say …
I believe in Jesus.
I believe that Jesus died on the cross.
I believe that Jesus rose again.
I believe that Jesus has taken away the sins of the world.
I love Jesus.
(More than ever.)
But, no, I don’t believe all of that other before-mentioned stuff about God being angry and tossing people into hell like pieces of trash.
And I don’t think that makes me any less of a Jesus follower than someone who (more or even less) believes all of those things.
In his book, Brian Zahnd shares how the Good News is perhaps better understood from an excerpt in the book of Jeremiah where the prophet shows God saying this …
“Oh! Ephraim is my dear, dear son, my child in whom I take pleasure! Every time I mention his name, my heart bursts with longing for him! Everything in me cries out for him. Softly and tenderly I wait for him.”
Here we get a glimpse of God’s heart for someone called “Ephraim”. Scholars say that Ephraim was actually a name for the Nation of Israel approximately 700 years before Jesus arrived on the scene, a time in Israel’s history when the nation was in its worst possible spiritual condition.
She was …
And yet, even so, God is not dangling Ephraim over the fires of hell like one might dangle a spider, but (instead) is filled with an unfathomable amount of unconditional love for His prodigal nation. He doesn’t throw the nation away, doesn’t turn his back, doesn’t toss it to the flames and declare that there’s no hope.
Rather, He softly, tenderly, patiently awaits for His prodigal to recognize what has always been and always will be there: His never-ending, never-shrinking, never-disappearing, eternal love.
That, my friends, is Good News.
It’s not just Good News for people who happen to believe the right things about Jesus, the people who have “accepted Him into their hearts” or have said a “sinners prayer” or have a better understanding of various theologies and doctrines than others.
Rather, it’s Good News for everyone, everywhere. It means that no matter how far we stray, no matter how many mistakes we make, no matter how much of a mess we make of things, no matter where our lives may lead us – God, the Divine, the Creator is always there, right by our side, looking at us with the same love and adoration that He had for wayward Ephraim.
And I’m confident in saying that THIS is the Good News and that THIS is the heart of God because THIS is what we see in the life of Jesus.
For the last year I’ve been intentional with reading very little in my Bible outside of the 4 Gospels, all of which tell the story of Jesus’ life. I’ve done this because I wanted to put forth intentional effort to have a better understanding of who Jesus was, what He did, and how He lived so that I can do a better job of following in His footsteps today, in 2019.
In his book Zahnd says that …
“If the mystery of God is a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle, the picture on the cover of the box is the face of Jesus! Jesus is the face of God, the icon of God, the Word of God, the divine Logos made flesh. This is the recurring theme among the New Testament writers. What the Bible does infallibly is point us to Jesus. The Bible itself is not a perfect picture of God, but it does point us to the One who is.”
The message that Jesus came to bring is that everyone is welcome, that everyone has a place. He intentionally went to the people on the outside and brought them inside. He went to the places where the religious leaders wouldn’t go to get the people they wouldn’t touch. He healed the sick, freed the demonized, cared for the poor, the weak, the widows. He refused to obey Moses’ command to stone sinners and flat our refused to follow in the footsteps of Elijah who called down fire from heaven on the supposed enemies of God. For Jesus, no one was too far gone or too off track or too lost that they couldn’t be found and brought near.
Jesus is the face of God.
And the last thing I see Jesus doing is calling His disciples to Himself before going to heaven and saying, “Look guys. I lived my life here. It’s over now. Now the ball is in your court. Go create a new Empire called Christianity and get as many people as you can to believe that I died for their sins. Yes! Evangelize, Evangelize, Evangelize! All about ME. Because when they get to the pearly gates … if I find that they don’t believe in Me and My work for them on the cross; and if they didn’t ask me into their hearts and say the sinners prayer. Well. Then I’m going to have no choice but to give them over to my Father’s wrath. My Father will throw them into hell and they’ll be tortured for all of eternity. Follow MY command to love your enemies, but know this – I’m throwing my enemies into the fires of hell.”
On the list of things that Jesus never said, that’s at the top. Jesus IS the face of God. And when I look at Jesus I don’t see an angry guy waiting to chuck people into hell for believing the wrong things, but a loving and caring and patient Divine Being who never gave up on anyone. That’s Jesus. That’s God.
And that’s the Good News.