18th Century Theology
November 26, 2013
Hell and a Just God
God’s goodness and grace is seen in all of his creation. Heaven is a real place. Most Christians—even nominal ones—agree with these statements. When it comes to the other end of the spectrum, however, many struggle with the concepts of God’s justice and hell. How are Christians to reconcile God’s immeasurable severity with his inconceivable grace? Jonathan Edwards gave one of history’s most concise and centralized arguments for the consistency of God’s nature. Edwards directly approaches the justice of sentencing people to eternal damnation by proposing that hell is not something that we must explain away but instead is compatible with reason and with the character of a just God. He asserts that we too can come to understand the justness of hell through our understanding of pain, mercy and dignity. Edwards defends the integrity of hell against people’s resistance and explains how to use hell effectively yet properly in the revivalism of the 18th century.
Edwards consistently displays the compatibility of reason and divine revelation in his works and does so in the most difficult theological contexts. His thought process is clearly a product of the movement of rational and naturalistic thought of the Enlightenment. A Puritan pastor during the First Great Awakening, he was in the middle of the Old Lights (traditionalists) and New Lights (revivalists) debate. The Old Lights sought to maintain a faith founded in rational thought and understanding of the Puritan faith versus the New Lights who believed that the spiritual promptings and outward manifestations of the Holy Spirit were the evidence of new and working faith. As others argued for reason or revelation, Edwards saw no reason to separate them. In his attempt to prove their consistency, Edwards refused to ignore the most provocative and debated subjects. His respected discourses on the freedom of the will, original sin, and the purpose of creation are all examples of his dedication to the pursuit of ultimate teleology and theology; however, he is best known for his depiction of hell.
Theologians such as Tertullian, Augustine, Martin Luther, and John Calvin gave us explanations of hell but none are more famous than Edward’s sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” In 1741 in the middle of the Great Awakening, Edwards gave the chilling sermon that paints a vivid picture of God’s wrath: “The God that holds you over the Pit of Hell, much as one holds a Spider, or some loathsome Insect, over the Fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his Wrath towards you burns like Fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the Fire.” (“Sinners” 18). This unsettling description is often all that Americans hear of Edwards. Thus, they picture Edwards to be all fire and brimstone, and many take issue with Edwards for neglecting God’s grace, love, and mercy for his people. Edwards asserts that God’s swiftness in hell is not an insult to his grace but instead a necessary component of it. God could not be undoubtedly good if he were not unfailingly just.
As a pastor during the revivals of the Great Awakening, Edwards used warnings of hell to motivate communities that were at the pinnacle of their spirituality. He explains that hell and its torments are not something that should be talked around or even merely talked about but should be taken from scripture (“Warnings”). The focal point of his discussion of hell is Luke 16:31: "And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead." Jesus’ justification for hell is that some will refuse to hear no matter how hard the Father pursues them. God’s wrath and anger abide in hell, and he is pleading with men to stay away, but some will refuse. Often churches shy away from the topic of hell because they do not wish to scare anyone into a commitment. They want them to enter into the relationship of love. Edwards says that this view of love is then too narrow, that the warnings that God gives us are in essence love warnings that may be the most blatant way to keep someone from getting burned. We are not afraid to warn our children to stay away from fire—not because they will experience more love away from the fire but because we respect the dangers of the fire. We should not be reluctant, then, to restate his pleas to avoid hell. It is not in God’s character—and should not be in ours--to not warn people of the dangers or joys that they will face.
The character of God is always the crux of Edward’s argument. Ultimately Edwards argues in A Dissertation Concerning the Ends for Which God Created the World, that due to his perfect nature “God’s making such things as these his last end, is consistent with his making himself his own end, or his manifesting an ultimate respect to himself in his acts and works.” (100) This motivation explains why in the Old Testament God so often refers to doing things for his “name’s sake.” For his “name’s sake” he is a protector, a savior, a defender, but also a judge. If God did not first and foremost protect his name, then his creation would be for naught. If he were to value anything above his own “name” (even mercy) he would be unjust because he truly is the most beautiful and worthy object of worship and attention. God’s justice and love often offend people and therefore seem incompatible with the purpose of hell, but Edwards explains that God’s justice and love cannot exist without hell.
Edwards proposes that there are two reasons that people resist the idea of hell: our own personal preferences and because we do not have a real understanding of how evil our sin is and therefore how truly deserving of punishment we are. It is often people’s preference towards mercy and away from pain that leads them to dislike hell. These earthly and self-centered desires shape our idea of fairness and justice. Edwards’ work challenges people‘s skepticism and pushes them toward truth. He never expected anyone to accept his doctrine unthinkingly. He invited audiences to wrestle with God and his nature and believed that from this quarrel truth could be discerned.
Hell is a place that is unimaginably horrible. How could a merciful God look on the lost without mercy? Edwards makes it clear that his mercy is a subordinate end and secondary to his ultimate end of bringing glory to his name. He would find it laughable that God’s mercy was in question due to the existence of hell. Edwards clarifies that it is wrong of us to perceive mercy as an emotion. Mercy is not getting a punishment that you deserve. It is not compassion or sympathy and these emotions do not necessitate mercy. If this were true, then God would be letting his emotions overcome his role as judge, and emotions, not his glory, would be driving his actions. This would be a fault in his character, not a praiseworthy attribute. As a judge he would no longer be impartial, and if he becomes obligated by his desires, such as the salvation of all people (1 Tim. 2:4), then his mercy is no longer free. When his mercy becomes an obligation, it is done out of necessity, not love. Therefore those who strive to refute hell through God’s mercy end up disproving mercy itself.
It is hard to imagine a God of love as the creator of a place as miserable, painful, and unredeemable as hell. How could God who loves so extravagantly as to send his son to die for his people then allow them to go to a place where “the eternal death which God threatens is not annihilation, but an abiding sensible punishment or misery…That this misery will not only continue for a very long time, but will be absolutely without end.” (“Eternity”). Edwards argues that it is known to us that such a place of pain is evident and even logical. If God could not bear to see his children suffer, then the miseries of the world would not exist. We have already seen on earth that “God and creature-pain are not mutually exclusive.” (Gertsner 80). In hindsight Christians are thankful for the pain that they experience because it points to our need for God and allows us to rely on him. Just as God uses temporary pain to teach a temporal lesson, so he teaches an eternal lesson, his ultimate end, in eternal punishment. Just as our temporary pain points us to God, so does eternal pain point us to the eternal glory of God.
The second reason that Edwards suggests that we resist the idea of hell is that we do not recognize how wicked our sin really is. On earth we are used to sin, and we barely glimpse the glory of God. Therefore we do not recognize how despicable our sin is or how holy the object of our offense is. As Anselm originally argued, “the heinousness of any crime must be gauged according to the worth and dignity of the person that it is committed against.” (Davidson 50). The same crime committed against different subjects may cause very different responses. When Osama Bin Laden was murdered, his death elicited a different reaction than the assassinations Martin Luther King or John F. Kennedy. If Mother Teresa had been murdered, the reaction would have been more outrageous still. Edwards argues that because God is infinitely more worthy of our respect and honor we are infinitely more culpable.
Edwards redirects this argument to the eternity of hell in “Miscellany 44” by focusing on God’s eternal nature. He argues that God’s infinite nature and goodness, which we have all been given the physical ability to attain, is such that, if we were to understand the fullness of it, then we would have to be completely wretched to commit a sin against him; such an act would require complete depravity of the soul. God is infinite, and therefore the punishment for harming him is infinite as well. Just as God offers eternal life, he too must remain just in his deliverance of eternal life. This is the penalty for one sin. When we take into account the constant state of hardheartedness that the hell-bound inhabit, these wrongs begin to compound. Edwards says that no one will enter hell confused about why they are there or believing that it is an injustice. If we understood the gravity of our sins, we would actually be amazed that God is keeping us out of there (“Sinners”).
Looking at the ends of God, both ultimate and subordinate, requires one to observe the entirety of creation and its purpose. When looking at the big picture of God’s revelation through history, it is evident that God always has a plan when he exacts justice, even against his own people. When he does so, it is for his “name’s sake,” and in this case it is best to approach it with justice. In “Wicked Men Useful in their Destruction Only” Edwards refers to Ezekiel 15:2-4:
“Son of man, What is the vine tree more than any tree? Or than a branch which is among the trees of the forest? Shall wood be taken thereof to do any work? Or will men take a pin of it to hang any vessel thereon? Behold, it is cast into the fire for fuel; The fire devoureth both the ends of it, and the midst of it is burnt: Is it meet for any work?” (“Wicked”)
The vine of Jerusalem is no longer helpful, and the only purpose it can now serve is to be cast into the figurative fire. In the context of the story of Israel, it can be understood that they needed pruning, someone to remove the unhealthy so that a new generation could grow in stronger. According to Edwards there are two ways that man can bring glory to God: either by acting (bearing fruit) or by being acted upon (tossed in the fire).
The usefulness of hell is observed in making even the hardest heart useful to God. If God created the world in order to garner the most praise and exemplify his good nature, then it follows that he made man in his own image so that they too could bring as much glory to God as possible. There are some men who do not give God glory through their lives, beliefs or words, but they are not completely useless: through hell God gives them utility. A barren tree is useless in a vineyard, but it is an excellent source of fuel for the fire. Through the wicked, God exercises his justice, displays his majesty, and increases the happiness and understanding of the saints. While most people look for a way to redeem all souls, it is better at times to prune back and let the vine be as useful as possible.
Objections that can arise from such a controversial debate are numerous. Edwards answers many of them with concise and profound answers. One of the most compelling challenges that can be made on his explanation of hell’s justice addresses who is sent to each eternal destination. Edwards argues in A Divine and Supernatural Light that God chooses who will desire him, giving them this inclination in their heart. While all men have the physical, logical, and natural ability to see and desire God’s goodness, they will not do it unless they are given the will. Edwards’ critics argue that this paints hell in a different light, one where God is using people as pawns, creating the perfect bell curve to bring him maximum glory. It paints God to be conniving and willing to trip men if it betters him, throwing people in the fire in order to keep himself warm. These are people who while capable of seeing Christ in so many ways; they were never given the motive to love him. Their punishment for such is eternal and horrendous.
Edwards’ rebuttal would likely be that his critics are approaching this opposition with a people-centered attitude and not a God-centered attitude. This is another reaction that is rooted in a lack of understanding of the depravity of man and the absolute glory of God. God does not act out of a motive for human dignity and glory but for his own. Luckily they are compatible, which is a testament to the love of God: that the benefit of the other becomes your own. He would also assert that God is constantly revealing himself and his love and mercy to men; he is not withholding himself from some, but instead he is extending his goodness and eternal happiness to many. Each act of this extension is an act of unbelievable love and mercy that is underappreciated.
Edwards is considered one of America’s best and most relevant theologians, philosophers, and writers. His works propelled the Great Awakening and Puritanism and set the stage for American relevancy in each of these fields. He wrote an incredible number of works on a vast array of subjects. Yet it is his stance on hell that stands as the most remembered, commended, controversial and even hated position. For some it has led them to put Edwards aside as an unhappy and shrewd Puritan. For others it has opened their eyes to the gravity of their decisions and the immeasurable goodness of God to extend to them a way out of this eternal despair.
In his analysis of hell, Edwards is swift, candid and assertive. The boldness that this demonstrates is remarkable. His direct approach to hell makes it less ethereal and more tangible and shows more clearly its importance. It contextualizes hell as a way of pointing to Christ. While there are still parts of the theory that need to be wrestled with, Edwards certainly presents a compelling argument that seems a great place to start the pursuit of ultimate truth on the matter.
Davidson, Bruce W. "Reasonable Damnation: How Jonathan Edwards Argued for the Rationality of Hell." JETS. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Oct. 2013. <http://www.etsjets.org/files/JETS-PDFs/38/38-1/JETS_38-1_047-056_Davidson.pdf>.
Edwards, Jonathan. Brief observations on the doctrine of universal salvation, as lately promulgated at New-Haven. [microform] / By Jonathan Edwards, Pastor of a church in New-Haven. ; [Eight lines of Scripture texts]. New Haven: Meigs, Bowen and Dana, 1784. Print.
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Edwards, Jonathan. "Miscellany 44. Eternity Torments." Works of Jonathan Edwards Online. Yale University, n.d. Web. 23 Nov. 2013.
Edwards, Jonathan. “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Enfield. 8 July 1741. DigitalCommons@University of Nebraska - Lincoln. Web. 20 Nov. 2013.
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Edwards, Jonathan. "Wicked Men Useful in Their Destruction Only." Wicked Men Useful in Their Destruction Only. N.p., n.d. Web. 31 Oct. 2013. <http://www.jonathan-edwards.org/WickedMen.html>.
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