Kayla Cash

Professor Westblade

Religion 319

26 November 2013

Jonathan Edwards’ Hell:

Love God because He is Holy, or because He is Fearsome?


Eighteenth-century preacher Jonathan Edwards was most famous for his “fire and brimstone” preaching. This refers to his fixation on explaining the terrors of hell to his congregation. Such preaching did not make him popular in most situations, as he was eventually removed as pastor by the church he shepherded. Many did not find comfort in the words of Edwards, feeling as if Edwards himself was condemning his congregation to hell and offering little hope and acknowledgement of the goodness and true mercy of God. Edwards did in fact acknowledge the challenges that the people in his congregation had with what he was teaching them. As John H. Gerstner points out; “In a massive understatement he says that men find it difficult to reconcile endless punishment with those perfections which the Scripture attributes to God, such as his being most just and righteous and also merciful. Men picture God as a God of great tenderness and compassion who is far from being cruel; He is love itself and is not willing that any should perish.”[1] So Edwards’ preaching that only the mere pleasure of God keeps the wicked from experiencing hell at any given moment, and “By mere pleasure of God, I [Edwards] mean his sovereign pleasure, his arbitrary will, restrained by no obligation, hindered by no manner of difficulty, any more than if nothing else but God’s mere will had in the least degree, or in any respect whatsoever, any hand in the preservation of wicked men one moment,”[2] did not sit well with most people. There was now the temptation to view God as a scary, vindictive, and dare say, evil figure, who took pleasure in tormenting man, who did not show grace to those who love him, but arbitrarily picked people who didn’t have to suffer the terribleness of eternal damnation. However, this paper sets out to show that the eternal torments of hell that Edwards preaches and is condemned for by his congregation and beyond is the Edwards’ best sermon of love to his fellow man. To say that Edwards is preaching that man is to be scared into heaven is a sinful accusation. Edwards does not preach the fate of the unrepentant to make all afraid of God and to run to him in pure fear of punishment. Edwards would assert that such thinking misses the point of his preaching. In his sermons, he issues warnings to those who remain outside of grace, who refuse to allow Christ to be their savior and substitute.

To best understand how Edwards’ preaching should be viewed as loving, it would be of benefit to understand what is hell. Though some deny hell, Edwards will maintain that his basic proof is found in the Bible. Hell, in the theology of Edwards, is actually the presence of God himself. Says Gerstner, “Indeed, according to Edwards, He is hell and He is heaven. Eternity for sinner and saint will be spent “in the immediate presence and sight of God…God will be the hell of one and the heaven of the other.””[3]

But what is eternity? “We have no positive idea of the eternality of hell,” says Gerstner. Edwards would agree that most did not have true understand of what eternity is, and why it is a part of the punishment for sin. Edwards offers an explanation of eternity’s properties to help one another conceptualize it:

It is that duration that has no end.” Since Edwards cannot define, he lists some of eternity’s properties, negatively and positively. Negatively: first, it cannot be divided into integral parts; there is no half of eternity. Second, it cannot be distinguished by periods, such as youth or old age. Third, a great period has no more proportion to it than a short one; a thousand ages is as much less as a minute. Fourth, the eternality of hell cannot be made more or less by addition or subtraction. Fifth, it will be forever only beginning, “The wicked after they have suffered many millions of ages, will be as it were…only setting out in torment.”[4]


“It is said, not only that the punishment shall be forever, but for ever and ever….Doubtless the New Testament has some expression to signify a proper eternity, of which it has so often occasion to speak. But it has no higher expression than this: if this does not signify an absolute eternity, there is none that does.”[5] As Edwards repeatedly states, hell is the everlasting presence of God. The wicked suffering in hell will see God in his glory and be agonized all the more. What the redeemed worship will be what the wicked loathe. Their torment in hell is seeing the goodness of God and not being able to escape from it. There is no relief from the torments of hell; that is what eternity is. There is no beginning and no end, no halfway mark, and no time out. Edwards does not offer hope of any kind in hell. Its eternality is what makes it hell. There is no end, no matter how long and loud the cries.

Edwards makes it clear that all of mankind experience the mercy of God in his holding his hand back, using vivid imagery that is similar to what one would find in the book of Revelation: “There is the dreadful pit of the glowing flames of the wrath of God; there is hell’s wide gaping mouth open; and you have nothing to stand upon, nor any thing to take hold of; there is nothing between you and hell but the air, it is only the power and mere pleasure of God that holds you up.”[6] And, “there are the black clouds of God’s wrath now hanging directly over your heads, full of the dreadful storm, and big with thunder; and were it not for the restraining hand of God, it would immediately burst forth upon you.”[7] Also he makes it clear that “the bow of God’s wrath is bent, and the arrow made ready on the string, and justice bends the arrow at your heart, and strains the bow, and it is nothing but the mere pleasure of God, and that of an angry God, without any promise or obligation at all, that keeps the arrow one moment from being made drunk with your blood.”[8]

But why is there this terrible hell? Because just as God has it on his heart to show how excellent his love is, he also sets out to show the horridness of his wrath. When God, the great and justly angered, comes to execute the vengeance for his glory, and the sinner is suffering the full weight and power of God’s wrath, God will, as Edwards preaches, “call upon the whole universe to behold that awful majesty and might power that is to be seen in it.”[9]

And contrary to what many prefer to think, Edwards will insist that it is the furthest from being inconsistent with the perfection of God to allow the everlasting punishment of a torturous hell. As a matter of fact, those perfections require it; God’s perfections “require that sin should have so great a punishment, either in the person who has committed it, or in a surety.”[10] Some people rightly acknowledge that the threatenings of punishment do speak of a proper eternity. But in the same breath, they will say that it is not necessarily true that punishment will actually be eternal, because God may threaten things and actually not follow through with the threats, the rationale being that “God is not obliged to fulfill absolute positive threatenings, as he is absolute promises.”[11]It is contrary to Truth to declare that anything is real, be it past, present, or future, that God simultaneously knows is not true. Thus, as something is threatened it shall be, just as if it was declared as so. As Edwards explains, just because God has threatened hell, doesn’t mean he must follow through with it, but he is obliged to not absolutely threaten if he knew that he should not or would not follow through with his threats, as this would be showcase an inconsistency within God. Edwards explains in further detail:

Threatenings are significations of something, and if they are made consistently with truth, they are true significations, or significations of truth, that which shall be. If absolute threatenings are significations of anything, they are significations of the futurity of the things threatened. But if the futurity of the things threatened be not true and real, then how can the threatening be a true signification? And if God, in them, speaks contrary to what he knows, and contrary to what he intends, how he can speak true is inconceivable.”[12]


There are rational arguments for hell, most obviously the fact that there is suffering in the world. This shows that God is not opposed to having man suffer. Sinners rightly deserve to be cast down into hell, Edwards explains. Divine justice rightly permits “God’s using his power at any moment to destroy them,”[13] for all are already under the condemnation of hell. The unconverted’s proper place is hell, for in the very nature of man, original sin exists as the cause for damnation: what is sin but the ruin and misery of the soul? As Edwards teaches, “it is destructive in its nature; and if God should leave it without restraint, there would need nothing else to make the soul perfectly miserable.”[14]

Edwards notes this about a peculiar habit of men: that a man may hear about hell and the magnitude of its torments, but “flatters himself that he shall escape it.”[15] He depends upon himself, in all that he does, has done, and what he hopes to do--only further heaping insults upon God’s glory. Edwards wants the unconverted to know that “all that preserves them every moment is the mere arbitrary will, and uncovenanted, unobliged forbearance of an incensed God.”[16] This is because sin is a crime so heinous that it merits the punishment of hell. Hell is directly proportional to sin—“if the obligation to love, honor, and obey God be infinite, then sin which is the violation of this obligation, is a violation of infinite obligation, and so is an infinite evil.”[17]

Edwards would affirm that his reasoning is sound, and that anything to the contrary would deny God his infinite glory, a fact that he presumes no one would take away from God, and thus “it is proper that God should hate every evil, and hate it according to its odious and detestable nature.”[18] Therefore, if God justly has an infinite hatred of sin, then the expressions of this hatred are justified, for infinity is proportional to infinity.

The God that Jonathan Edwards preaches is the God who is justly angered by the sins of humanity. He is the God whose glory is seen in heaven and whose glory is seen in hell. His

mercy is expressed through holding his hand to keep sinful man out of the fiery flames of hell.

Nevertheless, although God is the torment of hell as well as the joy of heaven, the condemned will contribute to their own misery and not a mutual comfort, as many like to believe. Edwards may see it possible that the damned will only serve each other as fuel for the fire that consumes the other. Sinners will also be of destruction to themselves. They will pine after things and never receive satisfaction,[19] which is why Edwards says that “it would be far better for the unawakened to have spent the time in hell, than on earth; yea better for them to have spent ten thousand years in hell, instead of on earth.”[20]

In hell, “the wicked continue to rebel against the just punishment of God, and that brings more just punishment. So growth in misery in hell seems as inevitable as growth in blessedness in heaven is certain.”[21] And “the very realization of the wicked’s plight makes their plight the sadder. By their rebellion against their misery they only intensify it….As men gather sticks in this world for their own fire they continue to do so even when they are actually engulfed in the flames!”[22] Scripture also teaches that suffering will happen in differing degrees, according to the varying aggravations of the sins committed. God assures man that those who know the will of the Lord and in spite of the knowledge do not prepare themselves for his return, will suffer greatly. But those who never knew God and sins will still suffer, but in a lesser degree. Nevertheless, “when once the day of mercy is past, your most lamentable and dolorous cries and shrieks will be in vain; you will be wholly lost and thrown away of God, as to any regard to your welfare. God will have no other use to put you to, but to suffer misery; you shall be continued in being to no other end; for you will be a vessel of wrath fitted for destruction; and there will be no other use of this vessel, but to be filled full of wrath. God will be so far from pitying you when you cry to him, that it is said he will only “laugh and mock.””[23] Such a sobering message appears harsh and unlike the God as God is commonly understood. But Edwards, as he saw himself as a spokesperson of God, wanted all to see that God intended that men should understand that it is true that sinners sin at the risk of an eternal punishment, regardless if they choose to believe that they have been so clever that they will evade punishment in their unredeemed state.[24]

The person in hell does not try to repent, Edwards would argue; they instead continue in their sin by blaspheming the name of God, refusing to worship him. The condemned will see God and all of his glory and goodness and hate him for it. They will not turn or beg for mercy, for they will see God as the inflictor of all of their pain and cry out all the more against him. Both Scripture and reason will lead to Edwards’ understanding that the unrepentant will be punished so that they fully understand the punishment that they are suffering. They will know that “God has executed and fulfilled what he threatened, what they disregarded and would not believe.”[25] Edwards would assert that “it is reasonable that they [sinners] should be sensible of their own guilt, and should remember their former opportunities and obligations, and should see their own folly and God’s justice.”[26] The punishment of the unrepentant is that in hell, their existence is worse than non-existence. As previously stated, annihilation is the absence of the punishment that is described in throughout the New Testament. There, the “wicked in their punishment, are said to weep, and wail, and gnash their teeth; which implies not only real existence, but life, knowledge, and activity, and that they are in a very sensible and exquisite manner affected with their punishment.”[27]

            Therefore, Edwards leaves no room for the idea of annihilation as the punishment of sin. Primarily because “annihilation is no state at all and is therefore inconsistent with a man’s soul, which is never destroyed.”[28] We know this to be true because of Scriptural teachings. The Bible explicitly uses the term “eternal,” the same word used in describing glory as in describing death. Consequently, Edwards would find it inconsistent to be certain that heaven will last for eternity and think that hell could be temporal. Following the logic of Isaac Newton’s 3rd law of Inertia; heaven and hell are equal and opposite.[29] For God to inflict an eternal punishment upon the wicked is not to say that such punishment is inconsistent with His mercy. It contradicts reason and scripture to say that the mercy of God is such that he is unable to allow penal justice to be executed.[30] The eternal death and punishment that God threatens the wicked with is not annihilation, but instead a total sensory punishment. For “the Scripture everywhere represents the punishment of the wicked, as implying very extreme pains and sufferings. But a state of annihilation is no state of suffering at all. Persons annihilated have no sense of feeling of pain or pleasure…They no more suffer to eternity than they did suffer from eternity.”[31] Further, if a good man may suffer a life that is worse than annihilation, then undoubtedly the proper punishment of the sinner, through which God will put on display his outstanding abhorrence of their sin, will be a fate of suffering all the greater. By reason, therefore, the eternal punishment must exist as something greater than the non-punishment of annihilation.

Gerstner says it best: “although Edwards regarded himself as the spokesman of God in these sermons, he was still issuing warnings, in God’s name, of what would happen to the impenitent. He was not himself invoking judgment or issuing anathemas.”[32] The evidence coming from Edwards’ preaching of hell points to his obedience to God and a true, deep love for man, that they may not suffer. Edwards wanted to avoid engendering people with a wrong type of fear. He would not want anyone to possess a sinful fear of God, which is to fear God as evil, but instead have a right fear, the fear that comes from respect that acknowledges God as great and excellent. An improper fear of God drives men away from Him; if men fear God as they fear the devil. They flee from him, but if they fear him as the being he really is, they will flee to him. It is this wrong fear or “servile fear” which is cast out by love. But love does not cast out this dread of displeasing and offending God, for this holy fear does not only dread the fruits of God’s displeasure but the displeasure itself.[33]

A true faith in Christ is not an acceptance of him out of sheer desperation to escape hell, but a genuine, loving trust in the “loveliness and excellency of his being.” It would be a mistake, Gerstner writes, to believe that Edwards preached hell and only hell to unawakened sinner. Edwards though that this doctrine would be the most successful in awakening sleeping spirits, and he wanted to cater to man’s natural love of pleasure: “All men want to cultivate please as well as avoid pain.”[34] Furthermore:

Edwards never entertained the notion that anyone could be scared into heaven (but only into thinking about it and “seeking” for it). Constantly he speaks as in the sermon on Job 14:5: “There is no promise in the whole Word of God that prayings and cries that arise merely from fear and expectation of punishment shall be heard especially if they have been willfully negligent till then.”…sinners are not scared into heaven but that total fear would make them all the more the children of hell.”[35]


In summary, Edwards teaches that “God vindicates his injured majesty” in subjecting the wicked to the eternal, torturous hell. God also glorifies his justice in this punishment; “the glory of God is the greatest good. It is that which is the chief end of the creation.” God also (indirectly) glorifies his grace on those on whom he has shown mercy; “the saints in heaven will behold the torments of the damned: ‘the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever.’”[36] When the saved see how great a misery God has let pass them, Edwards implores the congregation to think of the unbridgeable gap between their state and the state of the condemned. Would they not, Edwards would reason, have a great understanding of the beauty of the grace bestowed upon them? The pain and misery of the condemned will only serve as fuel for greater love and gratitude for God in heaven. Hell’s torments, and the recognition that God has taken that from them will fill the saints in heaven will happiness forever, according to Edwards. For the sense of what they could be suffering eternally, and do not have to endure only makes the blessed eternally grateful.[37]

In this understanding, Edwards then rebukes the unrepentant: “How mad are men, who so often hear of these things and pretend to believe them; who can live but a little while (a few years); who do not even expect to live here longer than others of their species ordinarily do; and who yet are careless about what becomes of themselves in another world, where there is no change and no end!” It baffles Edwards with how careless men can be on the matter of eternity and how they can be repeatedly told about the torments of hell if they stay in their unrepentant states. He so plainly and rationally says, “if they [these eternal punishments] be eternal, one would think that would be enough to awaken your concern, and excite your diligence.”[38] Edwards also soberly reminds all that on the negative side of eternity, there is no hope:

Do but consider how dreadful despair will be in such torment. How dismal will it be...to have no hope….How sinking would it be to you, to endure such pain as you have felt in this world, without any hopes, and to know that you never should be delivered from it, not have one minute’s rest! You can now scarcely conceive how doleful that would be. How much more to endure the cast weight of the wrath of God without hope! The more the damned in hell think of the eternity of their torments, the more amazing will it appear to them.”


Edwards wants all to abandon their lives of sin and embrace Christ, who came to save sinners from the torments of hell, who paid the debt so they would not, who suffered hell and overcame:

For if you should suffer that punishment you would never pay the whole of the debt those who are sent to hell never will have paid the whole of the debt which they own to God, not indeed a part which nears any proportion to the whole….Justice therefore never can be actually satisfied in your damnation. But it is actually satisfied in Christ….In him you shall be safe from the eternal torments of hell.”[39]


 Edwards then reminds his audience that a man will never be able to pay the debt in full that they owe to God. The injury to God and his glory is so great that a fully satisfying the conditions of a punishment are not possible (as outlined above). But, as Edwards concludes, “if we  saw a proportion between the evil of sin and eternal punishment, i.e. if we saw something in wicked men that should appear as hateful to us, as eternal misery appears dreadful…all objections against this doctrine would vanish at once.”[40]




[1] Gerstner, John H. “Hell” in The Rational Biblical Theology of Jonathan Edwards” vol. 3. p 526.

[2] Edwards, Jonathan. “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”

[3] Gerstner, 507.

[4] Ibid, 522.

[5] Ibid, “Eternity.”

[6] Edwards, Jonathan. “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”

[7] Ibid, “Sinners.”

[8] Ibid, “Sinners.”

[9] Ibid, “Sinners.”

[10] Edwards, Jonathan, “The Eternity of God Torments.”

[11] Ibid, “Eternity.”

[12] Ibid, “Eternity.”

[13] Edwards, Jonathan, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”

[14] Ibid, “Sinners.”

[15] Ibid, “Sinners.”               

[16] Ibid, “Sinners.”

[17] Edwards, Jonathan, “The Eternity of God Torments.”

[18] Ibid, “Eternity.”

[19] Gerstner, John H. “Hell,” in The Rational Biblical Theology of Jonathan Edwards, 508.

[20] Ibid, 512.

[21]Ibid, 515.

[22] Ibid, 516.

[23] Ibid, “Sinners.”

[24] Edwards, Jonathan. “The Eternity of God Torments.”

[25] Ibid, “Eternity.”

[26] Ibid, “Eternity.”

[27] Ibid, “Eternity.”

[28] Gerstner, John H. “Hell,” in The Rational Biblical Theology of Jonathan Edwards, 524.

[29] Ibid, 524.

[30] Edwards, Jonathan. “The Eternity of God Torments.”

[31] Ibid, “Eternity.”

[32] Gerstner, John H. “Hell,” in The Rational Biblical Theology of Jonathan Edwards, 531.

[33] Ibid, 534.

[34] Ibid, 535.

[35] Ibid, 533.

[36] Ibid, “Eternity.”

[37] Ibid, “Eternity.”

[38] Ibid, “Eternity.”

[39] Edwards, “The Eternity of God Torments.”

[40] Ibid, “Eternity.”