Sinners In the Hands of a Loving God


Sinners In the Hands of a Loving God
Brian Zahnd

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.

–Jeremiah (Jeremiah 31:20)

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 than to bear you in his sight; you are ten thousand times as abominable in his eyes as the most hateful, venomous serpent is in ours.
–Jonathan Edwards, Sinners In the Hands of an Angry God

Two pieces of literature. The prophetic poetry of Jeremiah and the revivalist preaching of Jonathan Edwards. I know them both well. First let’s look at Jeremiah.

In this beautiful passage Jeremiah channels God’s love for Ephraim. Who is Ephraim? Ephraim is Israel in the 7th century BC. More importantly, Ephraim is Israel in its worst spiritual and moral condition. Ephraim is idolatrous, adulterous, backslidden, covenant-breaking, sinful Israel. But Ephraim is still the child of God and Jeremiah reveals God’s unconditional love for sinful Ephraim.

Centuries ahead of the full revelation of God that will come with Jesus, Jeremiah reveals the heart of God toward sinners. Toward me. Toward you. At your worst, at your most sinful, at your furthest remove from God and his will, God’s attitude toward you remains one of unwavering love. Why? God is love.

But many Christians struggle with a deeply embedded concept (theology) of an angry, vindictive, retributive god. Somewhere along the way they picked up a Sinner’s In the Hands of an Angry God paradigm. And it has left them deeply damaged.

It’s a theological tragedy that Jonathan Edward’s sermon in 1741 has become probably the most famous sermon in American history. Most encounter this sermon at some point in school — not for its theological content, but for its use of descriptive language…and I grant you it does use descriptive language!

The sinner is described as a loathsome spider dangled by a malicious deity over a raging fire. The sinner is told that in the eyes of God “you are ten thousand times as abominable as the most hateful, venomous serpent is in ours.” And on and on it goes. Let’s just say it’s not exactly the parable of the Prodigal Son.

I cannot tell you how deeply I reject this distortion of God’s disposition toward sinners. It’s hard for me to imagine a worse misrepresentation of the God who is revealed in Jesus Christ. But I have a disclaimer to offer and a confession to make.

First the disclaimer: I am well aware that Jonathan Edward’s most famous sermon is not representative of his whole life and ministry. I’ve read most of Edward’s major works and a few years ago read George Marsden’s Jonathan Edwards: A Life. I understand that Edwards is one of the great minds in American history. Reverend Edwards was also the pastor of a particularly contentious congregation. As a pastor I can understand being fed up enough that you feel like calling your congregation a bunch of loathsome insects. But still…

Now for my confession: Whereas I never shared Edwards’ Calvinism, I did share Edwards penchant for “terror evangelism.” Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God was particularly influential in my early days of preaching. In fact, I created my own hand produced copy of the sermon. (This was back in the days when cut and paste was done with scissors and glue.) Here are a couple of pictures of my personal copy of Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God (note the handwritten cover and the highlighted interior):


Yes, I know Sinners In the Hands of an Angry God well. I had portions of it memorized. It was part of my preacher’s arsenal. But long ago I came to regard evangelism by terrorism as immature, manipulative, and unfaithful to the God revealed in Christ. Today I preach Sinners In the Hands of a Loving God. At some point we have to decide which picture of God we will embrace and project.

How do we go about choosing? Both pictures can be drawn from the Bible. We do it by asking which picture looks like Jesus. Every other vision of God — from whatever source — is subordinate to the revelation of God we find in Christ. This is why the Apostle John will say no one has ever seen God until they see him revealed in the Word made flesh: Jesus Christ (see John 1:18)

Does the sadistic monster in the “Angry God” sermon look like Jesus? Of course not. So we are free to reject it. We must reject it!

But does this mean the wrath of God doesn’t exist? No, of course not. The wrath of God exists. But there are important clues, even in the Old Testament, to how we can better understand the wrath of God. For example consider Psalm 7:11–16…

God is a righteous judge;
God sits in judgment every day.
If they will not repent, God will whet his sword;
he will bend his bow and make it ready.
He has prepared his weapons of death;
he makes his arrows shafts of fire.

These three verses make it sound like God directly visits retribution upon sinners. But look at the next three verses…

Look at those who are in labor with wickedness,
who conceive evil, and give birth to a lie.
They dig a pit and make it deep
and fall into the hole they have made.
Their malice turns back upon their own head;
their violence falls on their own scalp.

The psalmist shows that what we might think of as God’s whetted sword is in reality the pit of self-inflicted punishment that we dig with our own hands.

Sin has consequences. We dig a pit of sin…and eventually we fall in. We act in malice…and eventually it returns to haunt us. We employ violence…and eventually it boomerangs back on us. We can call this the wrath of God. The Bible does. But it should not cause us to think that the Father of Jesus is the vindictive and retributive god of Edward’s infamous sermon.

Yes, sin has consequences, and sometimes they are truly horrible consequences. But the deeper truth is that we are more punished by our sins than for our sins. Jesus has made this known to us. Jesus tells us that the Father is kind and merciful…even to the evil and ungrateful. (see Luke 6:35–36)

What I want to tell you is that God’s attitude (spirit) toward you is one of unwavering, unconditional, fatherly/motherly love. You have nothing to fear from God. Let the fear of God be understood as the wisdom which recognizes that reality as God has created it has consequences. But the truth that we live in a consequential universe with a moral arc, does not mean that God views sinners as loathsome spiders. He does not. God looks with unconditional love upon all his sons and daughters…even his prodigal sons and daughters.

This is good news. This is the gospel. Let’s preach it.


(The artwork is a detail from Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son, c. 1665.)