Gabrielle D’Virgilio

REL 319

Professor Westblade

November 26, 2013

Jonathan Edwards vs. Charles Chauncy:

Will Hell be Everlasting and only for the Reprobate?

            In eighteenth century New England, two well-known and influential pastors argued for two very different ideas of salvation. One, a controversial American Congregationalist pastor from Boston named Charles Chauncy, was a staunch opponent of the Great Awakening and later in his life came to be of the unorthodox opinion that there will be universal salvation [1]; the other, Jonathan Edwards was considered “the most acute early American philosopher and the most brilliant of all American theologians.” [2] Edwards was America’s foremost defender of Calvinist doctrine and therefore, advocated the doctrine of limited atonement and everlasting hell. Both Chauncy and Edwards wrote numerous accounts on their conclusions of atonement. In 1784, a book that Chauncy had anonymously written in the 1750’s was officially published under his name. Titled the Mystery Hid from Ages and Generations (or the Salvation of All Men; the Grand Thing Aimed at in the Scheme of God), it defined his reasoning behind his liberal doctrine.  During the 50’s, however, Edwards wrote a response to it entitled the Salvation of All Men Strictly Examined in which he attempts to show “the weakness and inconsistence of [Chauncy’s] arguments.” [3] This work along with many others displays the influence Calvinism had on Edwards. Both men’s works are accounts of their interpretation of Scripture, and have valid points worth noting that can help aide their readers to conclude their own conceptions on life after death.

In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin is clear from whence he derives his doctrine on this point; “Wherefore, the Apostle made no trivial declaration, when he said that unbelievers shall be ‘punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of His power’ (2 Thessalonians 1:9).” [4] Because it is perspicuously written in Scripture, the ultimate authority according to Calvin, man can know of the “everlasting destruction” awaiting him without the saving grace of Christ. Edwards fell directly in line with this school of thought because he too believed Scripture to be God’s inspired Word and the inherent authority.

This is where the first area of contention begins. There is no doubt to either man that hell actually exists. Numerous places in the Bible refer to the place where those souls who do not believe in, or rather those who do not put their trust in Christ alone as their ultimate answer for man’s salvation from sin, are sent after death; however, a huge definitional difference between Charles Chauncy’s beliefs and Jonathan Edwards’ revolves around this very question: Is hell actually “everlasting destruction”? How long the tortured souls occupy this place in the afterlife, described in Matthew 13 as, “the burning furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth,” is partly where Chauncy split from the orthodox Calvinist view.

As previously stated, Edwards believed Scripture clearly pointed to everlasting condemnation for sin, in fact he pointed out the six times the English New Testament uses the words “eternal” or “everlasting” when referring to the future state of the unbelievers.[5] In the Mystery, Chauncy recognized that these passages are indeed translated correctly, and if we are to accept them at face value, then it certainly seems like the reprobates condemned to hell will suffer there for the rest of eternity and all universalist doctrine must be done away with; however, Chauncy argued that the Greek of those six passages does not necessarily have the connotative meaning of eternal punishment. Rather he contended that they should be taken to mean “a period of duration, without taking into its meaning, its precise length, or determining whether it is bounded or unbounded.” [6] The fact that both men may have been correct about their translations makes the reason for disputation more plausible.

To combat Charles Chauncy’s translation and conclusion, Edwards presented Matthew 25:46, which, in its original Greek and its English counterpart, use the same word to describe the duration of both heaven and hell. [7] It follows then that if this word were to describe hell as Chauncy’s description, then heaven will also exist finitely and both heaven and hell will come to an end. As a college student trying to grasp both men’s conception and see the logic of them, I would argue that Edwards may have had a leg up on Chauncy on this point. The idea that this particular verse alludes to the fact that heaven and hell have the same duration and that it was Christ who spoke these words, leads me to believe that hell must be eternal. What would have been the point of God creating human beings in His image, loving us so much that he sent his only son to die for our heinous sins, and allowing himself to have his heart consistently broken just so he could heal us and draw us back to Him, if those who love and fear Him will not ultimately be with Him in all His glory for eternity? If heaven will cease to be, then what was the point of Christ’s suffering and sacrifice for the salvation of those who believed in him? Edwards adds to his sound logic when he references Scripture further, pointing to the many scriptures describing, “that the kingdom of Christ is to be without end,” adding to my confidence that Edwards may have had the more sound argument. [8]

After further reading of Chauncy’s text, however, I learned he responded to my qualms directly. He indeed presented the idea that heaven and hell both may not be everlasting, however, he argued that this does not mean that life and our souls end. He makes mention of Revelation that brings forward the notion that there will be “a new heaven and a new earth.” When all things are finally redeemed and those reprobates who were condemned to hell come to the saving knowledge of Christ, then heaven may end and would be replaced by the plan God has for the new heaven and the new earth. [9] As there is no time frame set on when Christ will return and the creation of the new reality, it is difficult to argue Chauncy on this statement.

If we are to follow the progression of Edwards’ reasoning’s (due to its logical, consistent, and scripturally based nature) that hell and heaven are eternal and of the known revelation that there exists a place called hell where the wicked will end up, then we would come to the conclusion and yet another area of disputation between Edwards and Chauncy, that hell can only be meant for certain people and heaven is meant for their opposites.

            Chauncy, on the other hand, argued from and lays his claim in Romans 5:12-21. In the Mystery Hid from Ages and Generations, he presented each of these verses and paraphrases them to show his interpretation. Specifically, in verse 18, which states “just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people,” Chauncy took this to mean that Christ’s redemption, “And the justification of life is directly said to have come upon the same all men that were under the judgment to condemnation.” [10] In other words, if scripture clearly shows that as in Adam all die, implying the doctrine of imputed original sin, then even so in Christ shall all be made alive, implying that the doctrine of universal atonement follows.  Furthermore, he points to passages that indicate that everything, including sin, will be the subject of Christ’s power and salvation. [11] In order for sin to relinquish its power on men and for Christ to truly conquer all, there must come a time when all cease desiring the affections of their appetites and turn away from their enmity of God and turn towards faith in Christ. [12] Ultimately, if Christ died, defeated death in three days, and was resurrected to sit at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, it follows that God has the power to defeat sin in all men if that is His will.

Clearly, both Chauncy and Edwards believe in the sovereignty of Scripture and get their respective views directly from the Word; however, each man’s doctrine on the matter, I believe, lead to different conclusions about the ultimate sovereignty of God on the matter of sin while man is on earth. Edwards’ theology is dependent upon the idea of everlasting punishment for man’s sins; “He sees divine glory as everything and the vindication of divine concerns as overwhelmingly paramount.” [13] He assertively commends hell as an essential demonstration of the glory of God, which is the “chief end” for which God created the world. [14] While God is love, He is also just and righteous, two characteristics that can have nothing to do with the evil sin that befalls and sickens mankind. If indeed Chauncy’s view of universalism was true while in the same token knowing what Scripture blatantly states on the matter, then it would follow that God’s intention of saving all men was thwarted. This would imply that God is not ultimately sovereign and that the intention of His will cannot overcome the powers of sin and evil. It is with this knowledge that Edwards took his position: Christ did not die for all but rather only “for those God foreknew [because] he predestined [them] to be conformed to the image of his Son, … And those he predestined, he also called; those he called he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.” [15] In knowing these consecutive verses and the obvious emphasis Paul places on God’s choosing those that will ultimately be justified, Jonathan Edwards deduced that God is sovereign over the entire justification, sanctification, and salvation journey.

If, however, Chauncy’s interpretation and translation of the many verses he presented are correct, then we come to a different understanding from Edwards’ of hell and of the influence God has on the men who end up there. As prior noted, Chauncy believed hell to be finite with the intent of salvation for all. In this knowledge, we realize that this would imply that hell is not everlasting punishment, given to man after the judgment of his sins on earth, and is instead a place of remedial or course-correctional punishment. This state of existence, according to Chauncy, is designed to spiritually break the reprobates of their hubris and their desire to be like God. [16] The fundamental goal of this sort of disciplinary punishment would be to bring those condemned to a point of repentance and need for the love of Christ. [17]

While this may present the idea of a loving and forgiving God, I think it also implies that God has little to no power over what we do on earth and the extent that sin can penetrate our lives during our duration here. If we are ultimately all going to be united with God’s will, why does it matter how we live, behave, and treat others during our short life? If God’s will to save all men will inevitably pan out then why does God not allow men to “live and let live,” as the cliché saying goes. I believe unlimited and universal atonement implies that we can arbitrarily do whatever we please, and God is at the whim of our desires and wills on earth until he can actually get a hold of the wicked in their damnation. Moreover, I agree with Edwards when he argued that even one measly sin is a horrific and indescribable affront to our infinitely good and powerful Creator. Due to the nature of our righteous and holy God and the gravity of even just the one sin deserves the punishment of everlasting hell. [18] I believe man’s natural hubris keeps him from seeing the heinous state his soul is in without the imputed saving grace of Christ. Eternal judicial punishment may not seem like a fair response to the short life we lead on earth, but that is only if we do not fully understand the holiness of a just and righteous God.

            To come to a definite conclusion on which of these two prominent theologians gets the account of salvation correct is difficult to say. Jonathan Edwards and Charles Chauncy come to very different conclusions on the matter because Scripture does not point to an absolute definitive answer. Given their in depth study and knowledge of Scripture and their subsequent interpretation of it, both have developed logical and contingent doctrines. After researching both men’s theological doctrines, I side more with Edwards; however, it has also inspired me to continue learning, so I may come to a conclusion that is all my own, and that I can defend until God reveals His truth to me in the next life.






[1] Vetter, Herbert F. "Charles Chauncy | Heralds of a Liberal Faith." Charles Chauncy | Heralds of a Liberal Faith.

[2] Marsden, George M. Jonathan Edwards: A Life, 1.


[3] Edwards, Jonathan, the Salvation of All Men Strictly Examined, iv. 

[4] Calvin, John, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 3, Chapter 25, Section 12

[5] Edwards, Jonathan, The Salvation of All Men Strictly Examined, 251.

[6] Chauncy, Charles, The Mystery Hid from Ages and Generations, 256.

[7] “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” – Matthew 25:46

[8] Edwards, Jonathan, The Salvation of All Men Strictly Examined, 261.

[9] Chauncy, Charles, The Mystery Hid from Ages and Generations, 282-83.

[10] Chauncy, Charles, Mystery, 82

[11] Chauncy, Charles, The Mystery Hid from Ages and Generations, 171-179.

[12] Chauncy, Charles, Mystery…, 183.

[13] Davidson, Bruce W., Glorious Damnation: Hell as an Essential Element in the Theology of Jonathan Edwards, 809.

[14] See: Edwards, Jonathan, A Dissertation Concerning the End for which God Created the World. 

[15] Romans 8:29-30

[16] Genesis 3:5

[17] Chauncy, Charles, The Mystery Hid from Ages and Generations, 6.

[18] Edwards, Jonathan, The Salvation of All Men Strictly Examined, 97-100.