Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Review of THE GOD-SHAPED BRAIN by Timothy R. Jennings

In THE GOD-SHAPED BRAIN author Timothy R. Jennings presents evidence that reveals how a person perceives God affects their brain in either constructive or destructive ways. Specifically, he looks at the effects of two models of how God is often perceived. Jennings presents a fear-based God who is constantly waiting for people to fail in order to punish them in his anger, and he rightly shows that viewing God this way is destructive to the part of the brain where our rational decision-making capabilities reside. On the other end of the spectrum, Jennings presents a God of love. This God loves people and wants to heal them from their destructive sinful nature. This God is never angry at people for the things they do because he understands that their sinful nature is beyond their control and he just wants to love them and help them. This perception of God helps the part of the brain where our decision-making capabilities reside. Jennings describes how the brain works, drawing on some incredible findings in the field of neuroscience. The brain’s plasticity and ability to be rewired by our behaviors is outstanding and a testament to God’s incredible creativity in designing the human brain. Jennings seeks to help people to have an accurate perception of God and shows how this rewires our brains for good.

I got really excited when I read the description of this book, so I wanted to read it as soon I could. By the end of the book, however, I was greatly disappointed. To be sure, Jennings presents a lot of helpful insights and his heart is clearly in helping people to get better. But the book seems to try to paint a God more in the image of the one in Jennings’ imagination than the one the Bible describes. Jennings shows that fear hurts the brain. It makes sense. And it would be easy to draw the conclusion that God wouldn’t do things that intentionally cause fear because he doesn’t want to harm our brains since he designed them to respond in that way. I get it. However, the Bible presents us with a God who is very often fear-inducing. Jacob in the Bible even once refers to God as the “Fear of Isaac.” The Bible says that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Sure, we’re told time and again not to fear, but that is because if we trust in God he is for us. If we make God our enemy, we have much to fear.

Jennings resorts to reinterpreting countless passages of Scripture to say what he believes they say. For example, he repeatedly tries to explain away God’s anger by looking at passages where God says he’s angry and trying to show us why that doesn’t mean what we think it means. I think he’s right in some areas about the actions of God in anger because I don’t believe God is a divine thrower of temper tantrums. But I think if God says he’s angry, I think he means that he’s angry. Who are we to try to explain that away as if we think we’re God’s public relations agent?

Jennings wants to show that God doesn’t produce fear, but story after story in the Bible shows us a God who does things that produce fear in human beings. He tries to explain this away as well as God being so loving that he’s willing to be misunderstood. But according to Jenning’s research, God being misunderstood is very damaging to the brain.

Finally, because the traditional view of hell doesn’t fit the perception of God that Jennings is trying to present, he opts for a view of hell that’s as unclear as Rob Bell’s. He seems to be advocating a form of annihilationism, but it seems that he could possibly be supporting a form of universalism in which everyone’s sinful nature is eventually burned away. I wish I could believe in annihilationism, but the biblical evidence doesn’t seem to support it, and the biblical witness certainly leaves out the option of universalism.

I think Jennings is right to want to obliterate the view of God as an angry tyrannical hateful ruler of the universe because I believe God is ultimately loving. I also believe that God is misunderstood and that we have to use our minds to understand what he is saying to us. How do you explain the effects of fear on the brain? I’m not a scientist, so I can’t say, but I think there’s probably a lot more going on than scientists have currently discovered about the human brain. I support the heart behind THE GOD-SHAPED BRAIN, but I can’t support all of the theological conclusions of it. Being a book review, I can’t adequately wrestle with every issue in the book. That would require a book in itself. But readers should read with a critical mind.

Review copy provided by InterVarsity Press

Photo Credit: InterVarsity Press


  1. "I wish I could believe in annihilationism, but the biblical evidence doesn’t seem to support it"

    I encourage you to check out Nearly 2 years ago, I would have said the biblical evidence doesn't support it, either. But what I discovered when I actually examined said evidence is that all of it, most notably the texts typically cited by proponents of the traditional view of hell, supports annihilationism.

  2. Tom,

    I had high hopes for this book as well. I do think it has a lot of good information in it, but Dr. Jennings lost me with the anni-universalistic conclusion.