It would be natural to assume that Brian Zahnd, most recently the author of The Wood Between the Worlds: A Poetic Theology of the Cross, is a megachurch pastor. After all, he’s published half a dozen popular books and has a large following online.
But the “gigantic” parking lot of Zahnd’s church in Missouri was “desolate” when journalist Tim Alberta visited while researching his own recent book. “There must have been spaces for 800 vehicles,” Alberta observed, but maybe a tenth were occupied.
The short explanation for the decimation of Zahnd’s congregation, as Alberta tells it, is faithfulness. Years into his pastoral career, leading what was then a megachurch, Zahnd felt God calling him into a deeper and more demanding Christian life. He dove into theological study, especially of early church fathers like Irenaeus and Augustine, and emerged with a changed faith—not “backsliding,” he told Alberta, but “front-sliding,” becoming “more committed to Jesus than [he’d] ever been.”
That included a newfound commitment to Christian nonviolence and a rejection of politicized Christianity, which in Zahnd’s context—a red state during George W. Bush’s first presidential term, with the Iraq War under active debate and a re-election campaign in full swing—meant the near-complete integration of many evangelicals’ Republican and American identities with their faith. “God raised up Jesus, not America,” Zahnd recalled telling his congregation. “They got it. And they left.”
Two decades later, the Zahnd of The Wood Between the Worlds is no less dogged in his sheer enthusiasm for Jesus. Even his punctuation is excited about Christ. (“This is what God is like!” one section header trumpets.) And the subtitle is apt, insofar as this is the most cross-centered book I’ve read in years—a worthwhile meditation on theodicy, atonement, and the shape of a cruciform life. But Zahnd’s “poetic” mode of theology leads to occasional imprecision and, as a result, some questionable theological moves.
Followers of a suffering God
Early in the book, Zahnd writes, “The most emotive and persuasive argument against Judeo-Christian faith is not an argument against the existence of God, but an argument against the goodness of God.” He bolsters his case with accounts—inspired by true stories—of the torture and murder of small children in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.
It’s a sickeningly effective illustration, but perhaps unnecessary in an era when news of evils across the world is broadcast so constantly and rapidly. Footage of disastrous earthquakes reaches us in real time; terrorists livestream their abductions and rapes; any casual scroll through Facebook is likely to turn up an online alms collection for a toddler with cancer.
Such horrors tend to result less in a confident atheism than in a weary, vaguely spiritual preoccupation with injustice and a decided lack of interest in any God who tolerates it. And much of what is trotted out as biblical theodicy, Zahnd argues, is nothing of the sort. The Psalms regret the suffering of innocents but don’t really explain it. The Book of Job models trust in God in our most vulnerable ignorance, but it too leaves the central question of evil unanswered.
So where, asks Zahnd, “is God in unspeakable human suffering?” He is there too, the book concludes, in the solidarity of the Cross. “The only theodicy I know is that God too has hung, suffered, and died,” he writes. “When we see Christ in agony upon the cross, we see a suffering God who refuses to allow his beloved creatures to suffer alone.” This same God is not dead but alive, not defeated but victorious, and he will one day bring justice and restoration to all things (Acts 3:21).
This is not only theodicy for the 21st century, of course. It is also theology proper. It tells us, as that enthusiastic section header puts it, “what God is like!” And Zahnd’s engagement with atonement theories has a similar end. How we explain the Cross is of utmost importance, he correctly observes, because the Crucifixion is “the pinnacle of divine self-disclosure” (Col. 1:15–20), and our understanding of God necessarily shapes our understanding of what God wants of us.
Zahnd doesn’t advocate any single theory of the Cross, though he favors René Girard’s scapegoat theory and the ancient family of metaphors (ransom, recapitulation, redemption, etc.) we collect as the Christus Victor model. For Anselm’s satisfaction theory and John Calvin’s penal substitution model, Zahnd issues a fierce critique, arguing that they present a sub-Christian, “paganized soteriology” that “import[s] an unspeakable violence into the Trinity.” (I’ll return momentarily to the farthest point Zahnd reaches in repudiation of these theories.)
Atonement models that emphasize how Christ suffers and dies for his enemies rather than killing them (Rom. 5:10) are foundational to Zahnd’s understanding of what it means to live as a follower of Christ. Readers who disagree with him on atonement may at this point expect Zahnd to be some sort of theological liberal: “soft on sin,” perhaps, or inclined to teach exclusively from the red letters that land comfortably with modern social justice types.
A fair reading doesn’t permit that conclusion. On the contrary, he rebukes “liberal theology [that tries] to separate the teaching ministry of Jesus from his suffering and death,” making the Cross “nothing but a tragic catastrophe” and Jesus merely an “unfortunate victim of the machinations of bad religion and cruel empire.”
Zahnd vehemently rejects bad religion and cruel empire, to be sure. (He has ties to the neo-Anabaptist movement.) But he does so quoting theologian Søren Kierkegaard’s bracing insight “that Christ’s life is a demand.” He does so calling Christians to a cruciform life that renounces war, idolatry, and fornication—to a life of following Jesus even if it gets us killed or empties our gigantic church parking lots.
Poetry or precision?
“Not all theological language is the same,” Zahnd writes in a short prelude:
Though in modernity we have a penchant for technical prose when engaging in theological conversation, earlier ages—and the Bible itself—have a fondness for the less precise but also less limiting language of poetry. Theopoetics is, in part, an attempt to speak of the divine in more poetic language. It is an attempt to rise above the dull and prosaic world of matter-of-fact dogma that tends to shut down further conversation. If in this book I occasionally veer away from prose to employ slightly more poetic language in how I see the cross, this should not be regarded as fanciful, but as the best recourse I could find to describe the truth I believe the Spirit is helping me to see.
Two notes are necessary here. First, in this sense, I’m very modern. I like the straightforward arguments of the Epistles. I value the precision of prose. But I don’t want to render a theological verdict on what may mostly be a difference of personality, so let me disclose this bias.
Second, most of The Wood Between the Worlds is prose. Zahnd talks of theopoetics and quotes some hymns and poems, but it’s only in a final, unnumbered chapter that he fully shifts into a theopoetic mode himself. In the prose that makes up the bulk of the book, Zahnd is extremely precise when he wants to be (on points like the divinity of Christ, the necessity of the Cross, and the reality of the Resurrection). And there are points where he’s deliberately more freewheeling, hoping to provoke thought, raise questions, and leave readers with a spiritually productive lack of resolution.
But there are also points where Zahnd’s chosen style raises questions that feel less productive—more in need of a concrete answer. Two in particular stood out.
First was his repeated description of the story of Cain and Abel as a “founding” moment. Pilate couldn’t understand Christ’s kingdom, Zahnd says, because it is not of this world, which “is the one founded by Cain through the slaughter of brother called other and enemy” (emphasis mine). Similar constructions pop up several times. Because Cain was “the founder of the first city,” Zahnd contends, his “founding murder” of Abel was the “cornerstone of human civilization.”
As someone who basically shares Zahnd’s convictions about nonviolence (which he graciously explained in an interview for my first book in 2018), I’m sympathetic to what he’s attempting here. But the New Testament doesn’t use the story of Cain this way; it is content to cite the Fall as a sufficient narrative explanation for evil in our world, violence included.
There may well be a persuasive case for interpreting the Cain story this way. Zahnd is almost certainly drawing on Augustine, who describes Cain-as-murderer as “the founder of the earthly city.” The idea of Cain’s murder as an “original violence” is echoed by Thomas Hobbes, Girard, and modern scholarship, and Zanhd is likely influenced at least by Girard. But he doesn’t share any of that background with readers, foregoing an explanation for why violence is a “special” sin with its own “Fall.”
The second case, where Augustine can’t be marshaled in defense, is more likely to get Zahnd in hot water. In his critique of the satisfaction and penal substitution theories of the Atonement, his main objection is the role he sees these views assigning to God the Father. Christus Victor makes the Devil the obstacle to reconciliation between God and people; to choose one metaphor, it is the Devil who demands a ransom for humanity’s freedom (Heb. 2:14–15, 9:15). But these later theories swap things around, portraying the Father as the one demanding satisfaction or punishment before reconciliation may occur. In Zahnd’s view, this suggests a God “who inflicts pain and suffering upon the Son.”
Pushing back on this notion, Zahnd approvingly quotes a Russian Orthodox theologian, Sergius Bulgakov, who wrote that in “the human crucifixion of the Son and the divine co-crucifixion of the Father, love itself is co-crucified.” Two pages later, Zahnd himself acknowledges that to “speak of the entire Holy Trinity as co-crucified with the Son is daring language, to be sure, but it is far more theologically sound than doing violence to the Trinity by positing the Son as an object of the Father’s wrath.”
Once again, I am sympathetic to Zahnd’s aims here. I too prefer the Christus Victor model, and on similar grounds. But the concept of co-crucifixion of the whole Trinity is not simply “daring.” It at least approaches the ancient Trinitarian heresy of patripassianism (which says God the Father suffered on the cross) and associated heresies like modalism (which describes the three members of the Trinity as different revelations, or modes, of a single person).
To be clear: I don’t think Zahnd is a modalist, and I doubt he could be fairly labeled a patripassian. But slightly more precise and, yes, prosaic language could have made the same points about the Trinity’s loving unity of purpose in the project of redemption without introducing the same uncertainty about the Trinity’s nature.
That imprecision is the matter of a few pages, and the great bulk of The Wood Between the Worlds rests on surer ground. Zahnd writes as a Christian who has long “resolved to know nothing … except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2), and he has ably invited his readers to do the same.
Bonnie Kristian is the editorial director of ideas and books at Christianity Today.