Jonathan Edwards and the Fate of the Unevangelized
Of the thousands of pages of sermons, treatises, and dissertations written by Jonathan Edwards, the single work for which he is known today is his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” His vivid depictions of a wrathful deity damning sinful humans to hell, as anthologized in high-school textbooks, leave most students with the notion that Edwards was simply another strict and somber Puritan, severe in his Calvinist notions of original sin and predestination. But such a conception of Edwards’ theology completely misses not only the motivation behind his studies, but the overwhelming passion of his life.
Edwards was not a typically staid and stodgy Puritan, nor was his theology of the dogmatic Calvinist type exemplified in the poetry of Michael Wigglesworth, author of “The Day of Doom,” a lengthy chunk of doggerel verse that contained the essentials of Puritan Calvinist philosophy of the day. Published in 1662, “The Day of Doom” depicts sinners coming before the throne of God on Judgment Day. Particularly unsettling to today’s readers is the scene in which children who have died in infancy plead their case to God, asking, “If it be just, and needs we must / transgressors reck’ned be, / Thy Mercy, Lord, to us afford / which sinners hath set free.” To this request, Wigglesworth has God reply that the babies have a share in Adam’s sin, and “therefore in bliss / you may not hope to dwell; / But unto you I shall allow / the easiest room in Hell.”
The idea of infants suffering in hell is a disturbing one: though most Christians accept that all humans from birth share in Adam’s sin and therefore deserve punishment, most would find it difficult to believe that a just and loving God could punish those—whether infants or people living in lands untouched by the gospel—who had never had the chance to hear of God’s grace and respond to his offer of salvation. This is basis for the objection the deists of Edwards’s time took up to challenge orthodox Christianity. The deists claimed that it was unjust for salvation to only be available through divine revelation; that a true religion must be available for all human beings to discover, rather than the property of a select group of individuals. They asserted that the essentials of salvation could be found in nature and that human beings were able to, through the use of their rational faculty, construct a sufficient “natural religion.” Much of Edwards’s theology served to respond to this.
He began by demonstrating that human reason was on its own completely powerless to understand God’s nature and his relations to man. Furthermore, he argued that divine revelation was absolutely necessary for any understanding of this sort. However, though Edwards believed that the Bible was the most explicit and comprehensive means of divine revelation, he did not claim that familiarity with the Bible was the only method by which a person could come to a saving knowledge of God. Rather, because it is God’s nature to communicate himself, the truth of God’s existence and his attributes are evident in his creation and in the means by which he has acted and intervened throughout human history. The specific instance of Christ’s coming into the world to die and redeem humanity from their sins is the most clear and stunning expression of God’s mercy, love, and intentions to redeem mankind. Edwards outlines his belief that the truth of the cross and the coming of the Messiah has been revealed to all men: to those who lived before Christ’s coming, and since then to those who have never had the opportunity to be exposed to the specific revelation of the Bible. And, because the work of justification and salvation is something dependent on God, rather than the person’s work or even their conscious choice to accept him, God’s salvation is therefore available to all men.
Essentially, Edwards would argue, salvation was not in any way a human achievement, and therefore the differences in situation between individual humans played no part in their potential salvation. Edwards’s writings outlined his belief in a benevolent and compassionate deity, a God that eternally revealed his love, beauty, and glory in his creation and in his redemption of human sinners, a God who truly offered salvation to everyone.
Edwards was especially eager to discount the notion that human beings could in any way through unassisted reason discover truths about God and their relation to him. Edwards believed that the human faculty of reason was corrupted by original sin, and was therefore undependable when it came to understanding things of God: “It cannot be imagined that he would leave us to our reason as the only rule to guide us in that business, which is the highest end of life: for it is not to be depended upon.” Edwards found evidence for this fact in the lack of Christian religion in many nations around the world, who despite having great amounts of time in which to search God out by means of their reason, were yet devoid of a true understanding of God and his redemptive purposes:
“The Americans, the Africans, the Tartars, and the ingenious Chinese, have had time enough, one would think, to find out the true and right idea of God; and yet, after above five thousand years’ improvements, and the full exercise of reason, they have, at this day, got no further in their progress toward true religion, than to the worship of stocks and stones and devils. How many thousand years must be allowed to these nations, to reason themselves into the true religion? What the light of nature and reason could do to investigate the knowledge of God, is best seen by what they have already done.”
Edwards would not grant human reason the ability to understand anything about God, his attributes, or his relations with his human creation. He dismissed the deists’ notion of the natural light, saying, “Thus, upon considering the extent and strength of human faculties, we have found them at present utterly incapable of attaining to any competent notion of a divine law, if left wholly to themselves.”
Edwards in this passage specifies “if left wholly to themselves” because he did believe that humans could use their rational abilities to comprehend many truths about God and to construct systems of morality. He holds up as an example of this “Socrates, who never traveled out of Greece, had nothing to erect a scheme of religion or morality on, but the scattered fragments of truth, handed down from time immemorial among his countrymen.” Edwards believed that Socrates, the deists, and any other person who had formed a conception of God or religious duties could only have come to this sort of an understanding through some form of divine revelation. He explains how Socrates could have formed an idea of God: “And that some of the ancient philosophers and wiser heathens had so good notions of God as they had, seems to be much more owing to tradition, which originated from divine revelation, than from their own invention.” Edwards emphasized again and again in his miscellanies the way in which all distinctly human knowledge has come as the result of revelation:
“The doctrines of revealed religion are the foundation of all useful and excellent knowledge. The word of God leads barbarous nations into the way of using their understandings. It brings their minds into a way of reflecting and abstracted reasoning; and delivers from uncertainty in the first principles, such as, the being of God, the dependence of all things upon him, being subject to his influence and providence, and being ordered by his wisdom… Revelation delivers mankind from that distraction and confusion, which discourages all attempts to improve in knowledge…Knowledge is easy to us that understand by revelation; but we do not know what brutes we should have been if there never had been any revelation.”
Edwards believed that humans were only capable of understanding God because he had revealed himself to them. Though this may seem a simple concept, it was one that the deists appeared to have missed. In his sermon “A Divine and Supernatural Light,” Edwards states that “God is the author of all knowledge and understanding whatsoever.” Indeed, Edwards went on to say, the power of reason itself, and the facts upon which reason worked, were nothing humans could claim as their own discoveries, but were in fact essential aspects of God’s revelation. Edwards affirmed that God had given men both the purpose for and the faculty of reason, had provided both motives and means in revealing himself to his creatures. He pointed out the deists’ misconception of their rational faculty:
“Many things, now they are revealed, seem very plain. It is one thing, to see that a truth is exceedingly agreeable to reason, after we have had it explained to us, and have been told the reasons of it; and another, to find it out, and clearly and certainly to explain it by mere reason. It is one thing, to prove a thing after we are shown how; and another, to find it out, and prove it of ourselves.”
The deists were confused, Edwards was saying, as to the origins of their knowledge of God. While they claimed it was something they had ascertained through their own power, Edwards asserted that God had shown himself to them, and that their understanding of him was in fact tainted by their attempts to construct a religion that did not incorporate the entire truth of God’s nature. What they claimed to be their accomplishments was in fact nothing more than misstatements about the truth God had originally shared with them. Though Edwards knew that revelation was absolutely necessary to any sort of understanding of religion, in what form did this revelation come?
Edwards believed that the primary means of understanding God came through the revelation of divinely inspired Scripture, because “The being of God is evident by the Scriptures.” However, though Edwards viewed the Bible as the most explicit and comprehensive form of revelation, he did not see it as the only means by which God could share himself with man and thus redeem his creation. At the center of Edwards’s beliefs in revelation was his understanding of the intrinsically communicative nature of God. In his “Dissertation on the End for which God Created the World,” Edwards describes God as “an infinite fountain of light and knowledge…of holiness, moral excellence, and beauty…of joy and happiness.” With such a creator, Edwards said,
“Thus it appears reasonable to suppose, that it was God’s last end, that there might be glorious and abundant emanation of his infinite fullness of good ad extra, or without himself; and that the disposition to communicate himself, or diffuse his own fullness, was what moved him to create the world.”
Edwards believed it was God’s intention in creation to share the knowledge of his glory and perfect nature with man, and that because of this, everything in creation pointed to and illustrated some aspect or attribute of God. This belief affected the way Edwards viewed nature, leading him to search for and find revelations of God’s character in general and particular facts about the physical world. In his “Personal Narrative,” Edwards recounts an experience in which he, while walking through the fields, becomes overwhelmed with a sense of God’s majesty and grace. Following this experience, Edwards sees revelations of God in the entire world around him:
“there seemed to be, as it were, a calm, sweet cast or appearance of divine glory, in almost everything. God’s excellency, his wisdom, purity, and love, seemed to appear in every thing; in the sun, moon, and stars; in the clouds and blue sky; in the grass, flowers, trees; in the water and all nature; which used greatly to fix my mind.”
Moreover, Edwards saw God’s love—the love displayed for all people in the redemptive work of Christ’s death on the cross—being revealed not only in nature, but also in the records of human history. In the doctrine of his “History of the Work of Redemption” Edwards states, “The work of redemption is a work that God carries on from the fall of man to the end of the world.” In this massive treatise, unfinished at the time of his death, Edwards outlines how every part of human history, from the fall to Christ’s second coming, plays a role in God’s redemptive purpose in the world. He depicts God as carrying out this purpose by periodically and consistently revealing himself to the world, so that although the schemes of Satan and the natural corruption of the human mind and will resist God,
“But in general grace is growing: from its first infusion, till it is perfected in glory, the kingdom of Christ is building up in the soul. So it is with respect to the great affair in general, as it relates to the universal subject of it, and as it is carried on from its first beginning, till it is perfected at the end of the world.”
Edwards outlines both in his History of Redemption and his “Types of the Messiah” how revelation reaches this “universal subject” of God’s redemption. Most evident to Edwards was the revelation of prophecy, nearly all of which he understood to be pointing to Christ’s redemptive work:
“It is apparent from the Old Testament that these things are the main subject of the prophecies of the Old Testament, the subject about which the spirit of prophecy was chiefly conversant from the beginning of the world. It was the subject of the first proper prophecy that ever was uttered: and it is abundantly evident from the Old Testament, that it is every way the chief of all prophetical events. ‘Tis spoken of abundantly as the greatest and most glorious event.”
Edwards described how God intended a redemptive purpose in creation even before the Fall, and that beginning immediately after the Fall, God began a series of unceasing revelations of his loving and gracious intention to redeem fallen man. Edwards refers to Genesis 3:15, in which God says that he will place enmity between the serpent and Eve’s offspring: “Thus the very first thing that was ordered and established in this world after the fall, was a type of the Messiah… And as types and prophecies of the Messiah began together, so there is reason to think that they have kept pace one with another ever since.” In every word or deed of God recorded in human history, Edwards saw evidence of God’s far-reaching redemptive purpose.
However, Edwards was conscious of the fact that to focus on the prophecies of the Old Testament and the history of God’s work with his chosen people, the Jews, would be grounds for deist objections against the universality of revelation. He therefore described how God employed the Jews to be a means by which his revelation would be spread to all corners of the globe. Edwards declared,
“We need not wonder at all, that God should so often reveal himself by prophets and miracles, to the Israelitish nation, and that now we should see nothing of this nature; for this way of revealing himself is not at all suitable to the present state of the church. The church was then confined to one particular nation, that God chose on purpose to make them the receptacle of his revelation, and the conveyancer of it to the rest of the world.”
In his History of Redemption, Edwards also referred to this concept, saying that because God “had an eye to the future propagation of the gospel among the nations…The land of Canaan was the most conveniently situated of any place in the world, for the purpose of spreading revealed light among the nations in general.”
Edwards believed that the essential revelation of God’s redemptive purpose in creation had been for all time revealed to his chosen people, the Jews, and through them to the rest of the world. Edwards recognized that although all people have therefore been exposed to the revelation of God, not all peoples worshiped the one true God or recognized the truth of Christ’s redemptive work. Edwards would not blame this on any oversight on God’s part, however: it was the fault of what he already knew to be humanity’s corrupt and fallible reason, which, despite being given glimpses of God’s glorious nature, quickly forgot the truth they had seen and began to construct their own versions of religion and worship. This was because of sin’s corruption of the human mind: Edwards, in his sermon on “A Divine and Spiritual Light,” said that “The mind of man is naturally full of prejudices against divine truth. It is full of enmity against the doctrines of the gospel; which is a disadvantage to those arguments that prove their truth, and causes them to lose their force upon the mind.”
Edwards also described how this tendency manifested itself in the relative scarcity of true faith and religion in the world:
“Mankind, instead of being able, through a long series of ages, by the mere light of nature, to find out a right idea of God and his laws; on the contrary—after having, without doubt, been well acquainted at first with both—gradually, and at length almost universally, lost sight of both; insomuch, that idolatry as bad as atheism, and wickedness worse than brutality, were established for religion and law in all countries.”
Edwards was certain that the truth of Christ as Savior and Redeemer had been revealed to all men. He sums up this belief in his “Divine and Supernatural Light” sermon, in which he describes the means by which an individual is saved: it is through no effort of their own, no knowledge of God or religious doctrine, but by a direct revelation of God to the human heart, by which God would move that person to a saving faith in Christ as Savior and Redeemer. Edwards stated in the doctrine of this sermon, “That there is such a thing as a spiritual and divine light, immediately imparted to the soul by God, of a different nature from any that is obtained by natural means,” and he later claims that, “a true and saving belief of the truth of religion is that which arises form such a discovery.” It was this sort of discovery, this type of revelation, that Edwards had demonstrated throughout his many sermons, treatises, and miscellaneous writings. Salvation, he staunchly maintained, came about through absolutely no work of the human being—no previous understanding of God, no conscious choice or decision—but rather through God’s gracious and redemptive revelation of himself directly to the human heart. God’s redemptive nature and the truth of the cross transcend all time and location. Thus, though Edwards would admit that it was by no means guaranteed, the possibility of salvation therefore existed for all individuals, everywhere, in every time.
Edwards, Jonathan. The Works of Jonathan Edwards. 2 vols. Peabody, Massachusetts:
Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2003.
--“A Dissertation on the End for Which God Created the World,” vol. 2: 94-119
--“A Divine and Supernatural Light, Immediately Imparted to the Soul, Shown to be both Scriptural and Rational Doctrine,” vol. 2: 12-17
-- “Observations on the Facts and Evidences of Christianity, and the Objections of Infidels,” vol. 2: 460-641
--“The History of the Work of Redemption,” vol. 1: 532-615
--“The Importance of Christian Knowledge,” vol. 2: 157-162
--“Types of the Messiah,” vol. 2: 642-676
McDermott, Gerald R. Jonathan Edwards Confronts the Gods: Christian Theology,
Enlightenment Religion, and Non-Christian Faiths. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Wigglesworth, Michael. “The Day of Doom.” From The Poetry of Michael
 Michael Wigglesworth, “The Day of Doom,” from http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/WCarson/wiggindx.htm
 Gerald McDermott, Jonathan Edwards Confronts the Gods (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 18-19, 34-51.
 Jonathan Edwards, “Observations on the Facts and Evidences of Christianity, and the Objections of Infidels” (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1998), 461.
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 Jonathan Edwards, “A Divine and Spiritual Light, Immediately Imparted to the Soul, Shown to be Both Spiritual and Rational Doctrine” (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1998), 12.
 Edwards, 462-63.
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 Jonathan Edwards, “Dissertation on the End for Which God Created the World” (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1998), 100.
 Jonathan Edwards, “Personal Narrative” (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1998), lv.
 Jonathan Edwards, “The History of the Work of Redemption” (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1998), 534.
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 Jonathan Edwards, “Types of the Messiah” (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1998), 644.
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