All posts in Theology

  • Good Friday: A World Indicted

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    Good Friday: A World Indicted
    Brian Zahnd

    Good Friday offers humanity a genuinely new and previously unimagined way of understanding both the character of God and the nature of human civilization. As Jürgen Moltmann writes in The Crucified God, “the cross is the test of everything.” But to understand Good Friday we need to be clear on who did the accusing, condemning, and killing of Jesus of Nazareth.

    As we read the passion narratives in the Gospels it’s obvious that it isn’t God who insists on the execution of Jesus. Mark tells us, “the chief priests accused him of many crimes.” (Mark 15:3) Jesus’ jealous rivals accused him of heresy, blasphemy, and sedition because they were possessed by the satanic spirit of rivalry and blame. It wasn’t God who charged Jesus with capital crimes. It wasn’t God who shouted, “Crucify him!” It wasn’t God who ordered Jesus flogged with a lead-tipped whip. The work of accusation, condemnation, and torture is the work of human civilization under the sway of the satan. The spirit of God is not heard in the crowd’s bloodlust cries of “crucify him,” but in Christ’s merciful plea, “Father, forgive them.” We must not imagine the machinations of the devil as the handiwork of God!

    When Jesus arrived in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday the principalities and powers of Caiaphas, Herod, and Pilate and their constituent institutions of religious, economic, and political power were at enmity with one another. These power brokers were bitter rivals locked in a fatal embrace. But when they took their rivalry-induced fear and hate, and projected it onto Jesus as their chosen scapegoat on Good Friday, they achieved a demonic unity. Luke precisely tells us this. “That same day [Good Friday] Herod and Pilate became friends with each other; before this they had been enemies.” (Luke 23:12)
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  • The Crucified God

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    The Crucified God
    Brian Zahnd

    Here’s a big question. What is God like? I suppose this is the biggest question theology can ask. And we don’t need to be a theologian to ask this question. It’s one of the most basic questions facing anyone who attempts to worship or even just think about God. But how shall we answer the question?

    Our capacity for imagining God seems virtually limitless. Is God like Zeus whose incited anger results in hurled thunderbolts? Is God like Ganesh, the lovable elephant-headed god of prosperity from the Hindu pantheon whose idol I’ve seen in hotel lobbies across India? Is God like the comic white-bearded old man sitting behind a computer from a Far Side cartoon? Does God bear any resemblance to the primitive tribal deities who lead their people in waging war on other people? Is God totalized Will-To-Power whose omnipotence controls every event in the universe? Is God the aloof and absent clockmaker of Thomas Jefferson and the eighteenth-century deists? Is God the amorphous everything and nothing of New Age spirituality? And so on.

    To even venture an attempt to answer the question of what God is like seems to court idolatry. How can mere mortals possibly try to answer the question about God’s nature without being guilty of not only theological error, but outrageous hubris?
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  • Who Killed Jesus?

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    Who Killed Jesus?
    Brian Zahnd

    Two years ago during Lent I preached a series of sermons grappling with the horror of the cross. Why was Jesus murdered? Why was he tortured? Why was he crucified? And most pointedly, who killed Jesus? Throughout this Lenten series I made it clear that God did not kill Jesus. 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. In the Gospel narratives we see the Roman governor, the king of Judea, and the high priest acting in demonic concert to execute Jesus. God did not kill Jesus; human culture and civilization did. God did not demand the death of Jesus — we did.

    These Lenten sermons on the cross turned out to be surprisingly popular. I’ve discovered that most Christians are deeply relieved to learn that the forgiveness of our sins is not predicated upon God killing Jesus. Most people take it as good news to learn that child sacrifice is not part of God’s plan to save the world. Due to the popularity of these sermons a Bible college invited me to participate in a public debate on whether or not God killed Jesus. My debate opponent held to John Calvin’s theory that God had to expend his anger upon an innocent victim before he could find it within himself to forgive sin.
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  • God Is Not A Monster

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    God Is Not A Monster
    Brian Zahnd

    There are monsters in this world, but the God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is not one of them.

    Yes, Virginia, there are monsters. We have an imagination for monsters because we know of their existence. Venomous and vicious beasts were a daily peril for our earliest ancestors. Volcanoes and tsunamis can swallow whole cities. Hurricanes and tornados roar from the heavens, leaving hell in their wake. Epidemics of disease are lethal predators taking their pitiless toll. Worst of all, there are monstrosities of men — conquerors and warlords, tyrants and despots — galloping across history like ringwraiths bringing conquest, war, famine, and death. We can imagine monsters because we have met them.

    But the living God is not one of them. Not the God who Jesus called Abba.
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  • Slippery Slopes and Fixed Ropes

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    I have a three hour layover in the San Francisco airport. So…

    Slippery Slopes and Fixed Ropes
    Brian Zahnd

    The “slippery slope” trope is a favorite among fundamentalists. Basically the argument goes like this: The moment you move away from fundamentalist Biblicism you’re on the slippery slope of liberalism and will wind up sliding down into a crevasse with the likes of Friedrich Schleiermacher and John Shelby Spong. According to those who believe that serious theology is a slippery slope, you’re either with fundamentalists and young earth creationists like Ken Ham or you’re sliding down the mountain with new atheists like Christopher Hitchens. Of course, this is a ludicrous false dichotomy. But it carries a ton of intimidation. Just about the worst thing you can call an evangelical pastor is a liberal. The only thing worse is to go Def-Con 4 and drop the H-bomb: Heretic!
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  • Through the Eyes of N.T. Wright

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    Through the Eyes of N.T. Wright: A Conversation with Derek Vreeland
    Brian Zahnd

    Derek Vreeland is my friend and a fellow pastor at Word of Life. He has written a book on N.T. Wright’s latest “big book” — Paul and the Faithfulness of God. Derek’s book, Through the Eyes of N.T. Wright is a 118 page summary of Wright’s 1,700 page behemoth. Here’s what I’ve said about Derek’s book:

    With Through the Eyes of N.T. Wright Derek Vreeland has rendered us a great service. N.T. Wright is the most respected New Testament scholar of our era and his work on the theology of Paul could not be more important. But the fact remains that many are not up to the task of wading through 1,700 pages of dense scholarship. Derek Vreeland’s reader’s guide is an excellent distillation of Paul and the Faithfulness of God and thus a true gift.

    Recently I sat down to talk with Derek about this project. Here’s our conversation:

    BZ: How important is N.T. Wright to you personally and to the church at large?

    DV: Wright has become the rockstar theologian of our generation. He is as influential in our generation as C.S. Lewis or Karl Barth were in their generation. I think we can understand his wide-reaching influence in a couple of ways. He is biblical theologian grounded not in a particular theological tradition, but in the historical context of the New Testament. He wants to reconcile the divorce between theology and history. I appreciate systematic theologians who can work with the biblical texts and help construct a cohesive picture of what the biblical writers were trying to do, but sometimes our system forms too rigid of a grid and we actually miss the heart of what the biblical writers were trying to say. Wright has pledged no allegiance to one particular theological system, so his books seem to speak to people across the spectrum of Protestant traditions. He also has the rare ability to communicate effectively at both the academic level and the popular level. His academic books like Paul and the Faithfulness of God are filled with countless footnotes where he interacts with so many scholars and his popular books like Simply Christian speak on a level that the average churchgoer can understand. For me he has become my hero. His interpretation of Jesus and Paul within the context of first century Jewish world have revealed a Jesus and Paul who have everything to do with my life as a 21st century pastor.
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  • George MacDonald’s Spiritual Journey (And Mine Too)

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    George MacDonald’s Spiritual Journey (And Mine Too)
    Brian Zahnd

    “I have never concealed the fact that I regarded George MacDonald as my master; indeed I fancy I have never written a book in which I did not quote him.” –C.S. Lewis

    “I can testify to a book that has made a difference to my whole existence…and it is by George MacDonald.” –G.K. Chesterton

    George MacDonald (
    1824–1905) was a Scottish novelist, poet, preacher, mystic, lecturer, theologian whose writings have had an enormous influence on many Christian thinkers, including C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton. In my own spiritual journey I would list George MacDonald’s Lilith as a top ten influence.

    George MacDonald understood as clearly as anyone that salvation is not so much a conferred status as it is a lifelong journey — a continual pressing into the revelation of God in Christ. But to be a public theologian, thinker, writer and on an ever-evolving spiritual journey, rankles the self-appointed gatekeepers of religious certitude. Thus George MacDonald was regularly (and wrongly) accused of heresy for simply not toeing the line of the Scottish Calvinism predominant in his day.

    In the mid 1860’s George MacDonald received a letter from a troubled reader asking why he had lost the “old faith” and embraced what many regarded as “unorthodox” views. MacDonald’s candid reply is brilliant and beautiful and I would like to share it with you. (Plus, as one who has often been criticized for moving beyond an earlier fundamentalist/charismatic certitude, MacDonald’s defense will aptly suffice as my own.)

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  • Sinners In the Hands of a Loving God

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    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.
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  • A More Christlike God

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    A More Christlike God
    Brian Zahnd

    What is God like? What an enormous question. For those of us who believe that God is somehow at the foundation of existence, meaning, and self-understanding, it’s an all-important question. So how shall we answer? Our options are endless. Human inquiry into the divine has produced a vast pantheon of gods — from Ares to Zeus. Of course, the Christian will have an instinct to look to the Bible for the definition of God. I understand this instinct and in one sense it is correct; but it may not yield as clear an answer as we think. Even while speaking of the “God of the Bible” we can cobble together whatever vision of God we choose from its disparate images. That we do this mostly unconsciously doesn’t help matters. Even if we restrict our inquiry into the nature of God to the Bible, we are likely to find just the kind of God that we want to find. If we want a God of peace, he’s there. If we want a God of war, he’s there. If we want a compassionate God, he’s there. If we want a vindictive God, he’s there. If we want an egalitarian God, he’s there. If we want an ethnocentric God, he’s there. If we want a God demanding blood sacrifice, he’s there. If we want a God abolishing blood sacrifice, he’s there. Sometimes the Bible is like a Rorschach test — it reveals more about the reader than the eternal I AM.
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