The Looming Specter


The Looming Specter
Brian Zahnd

My criteria for writing a book is simple. I write what I cannot not write. I don’t rummage around in my mind for a topic, I don’t attempt to divine the whims of the market, I don’t ask, “Who is my target audience?” (A question always posed to me by publishers and one I never know how to answer. Everyone? Those who have ears to hear? Four friends? I don’t know.) I wrote A Farewell To Mars because I had to write about war in the light of Christ. I couldn’t be at peace until I did. I wrote Water To Wine because I had to tell some of my story. I was compelled to testify about what had happened to me. If these books found an audience who resonate with what I have to say, it makes me very happy…but I wrote them for the wellbeing of my own soul. And all of this is even more true with Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God.

In Bob Dylan’s “Nettie Moore” there’s a line that says, “Got a pile of sins to pay for and I ain’t got time to hide.” I can relate to that. There is a sense in which I’m trying to make amends with Sinners in the Hand of a Loving God. I am trying to recant some of my old sermons that presented God as angry, violent, and retributive. But my deepest motivation for writing Sinners is not to do penance for purveying ignoble ideas about God. My chief motivation for writing this book comes not from looking into the past with regret, but from looking into the future with concern.

As I imagine the world in which my grandchildren will be adults I see the looming specter of exponential violence. I don’t claim to know the future and I would be more than delighted to discover that my anxiety is unfounded. And yet…the specter looms. A nation awash in guns, a world flooded with weapons, a tsunami of terrorism, the rising tide of a renewed nuclear arms race. Whether current trends turn out to be an anomaly or a harbinger only time will tell, but the threat of exponential violence warrants serious reflection.

Ultimately Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God is a book about violence. More specifically it’s about alleged divine violence. In Sinners I’m wrestling honestly with questions of this nature: What about the violence of the Old Testament? Does God command and condone genocide? What about the wrath of God? Is lethal violence unleashed against entire populations compatible with a God of love? What about the cross? Did God demand the violent torture and death of Jesus as a required ritual of appeasement? What about hell? Is God the ultimate practitioner of violence in maintaining an eternal torture chamber? What about the Book of Revelation? In the end does Jesus renounce his Sermon on the Mount and become a divine Genghis Khan and kill two hundred million people in the most violent act in history? These are the questions I carefully and seriously address in Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God.

I’m satisfied with how I address these questions and I won’t try to abbreviate my responses here. I kept Sinners as short as possible while still adequately addressing the problem of biblical violence. If I could say what I had to say in a thousand word blog post I wouldn’t have written a two hundred page book. I’m satisfied with what I’ve written in Sinners. It’s now up to the individual reader to decide if I have addressed the problem of biblical violence in a manner that is true to the revelation of God in Christ.

The point I’m making in this blog is that the questions about God and violence matter. They matter immensely. I cannot think of a more timely and relevant theological question than this: Is God violent? If the answer is yes and the Bible “proves” it, then I see little hope for the 21st century. If our vision of God is violent then we have all the authorization we need to engage in our own violence in the name of God. Put more succinctly: If we believe God is violent, we will be violent. And as our technological capacity for violence becomes limitless, prospects for a flourishing humanity begin to fade.

And if I shudder at our prospects in a world that believes in a violent God, I shudder equally (and perhaps more so) at the secular proposal of organizing the world without God. Dostoevsky addressed this in the 19th century when he told us through Ivan Karamazov that “without God all things are permitted.” The 20th century experiments in secular totalitarianism and the mass murders they unleashed proved Dostoevsky to be a prophet.

Without God we are violently secular.

With a violent God we are violently religious.

Whether it’s Christians on crusade or Muslims on jihad, whether it’s secular Bolsheviks in Russia or the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, we seem caught in an inescapable vortex of violence. Whether we cast God out or cast God as violent, we are haunted by the looming specter of exponential violence. Where do we find hope? Believe it or not, I find it in the Bible.

The Bible is a violent book because the problem of violence is a fundamental problem the Bible is attempting to solve. The Bible is no tranquil tome of idyllic platitudes; it is too haunted by the specter of bloody violence to ever be that. But as I read my Bible day after day I don’t despair of the violence, because I discern within the Bible a trajectory that faithfully leads us beyond the archaic vision of an angry and violent God toward the God of Love revealed in Christ who patiently offers us the enduring shalom of the New Jerusalem. The possibility of resilient neighborly love and human flourishing formed around the worship of God and no longer haunted by the looming specter of violence is the hope I have for this world. I find this hope in the Bible. I find this hope in Jesus. This is the hope I set forth in Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God.

As I bring this blog to a close I’m reminded of some lyrics from Bruce Cockburn that I wasn’t able to include in Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, so I’ll share them with you here.

God, damn the hands of glory
That hold the bloody firebrand high
Close the book and end the story
Of how so many men have died
Let the world retain in memory
That mighty tongues tell mighty lies
And if mankind must have an enemy
Let it be his warlike pride
Let it be his warlike pride


(I took the photo as I wrote this blog at Cathedral Ridge in Colorado. Peri and I are here to speak at our youth camp.)