God’s Sovereignty, Human Responsibility, and Predestination to Heaven and Hell
Kaeleigh Di Cello
REL-319-01: 18th Century Theology
April 30, 2023
In many of his sermons, Jonathan Edwards clearly acknowledges God’s complete sovereignty over every human’s salvation. Not only does God predestine to Heaven, but, Edwards argues, He also predestines to Hell. Although Edwards claims that God ultimately predestines according to His pleasure, he still pleads with his listeners to repent and turn to Christ while they still can. Therefore, as Edwards argues, while God is completely sovereign and predetermines each individual’s eternal destiny, He still demands repentance, making predestination both to glory and to damnation not mere determinism, but rather a free choice, which God foreordained to happen.
God’s Complete Sovereignty in Condemning People to Hell
In order to logically accept the doctrine of double predestination, one must first acknowledge, as Edwards argues, that God is completely sovereign in not only predestining people to eternal glory, but also in condemning people to Hell. However, before one can accept this claim, we must first understand what Hell is. According to Edwards, Hell is God’s wrath manifested in individual, experiential, and eternal punishment. However, since God’s wrath is already manifested here on earth (as is supported all throughout scriptures), some may wonder how the earthly manifestation of God’s wrath is any different from what the manifestation of His wrath will be in Hell. One example of this earthly wrath is in Psalm 85, when God “withdrew all [His] wrath” that He had poured out on His people. Another is in Psalm 88, where the writer says that “your wrath swept over me.” In Romans 1, God’s wrath is manifested not in punishment, but in His allowing people to fall into the sinful lives they so desperately desire. Taking these various passages into consideration, it would seem that God’s wrath is temporary and bearable, not eternal and intolerable. However, while it would be true that God has poured out his wrath in this world, God’s wrath in this life is very different from the ultimate wrath that He will pour out in the life to come.
Edwards explains wrath in this life as judgement accompanied by warning, while wrath in the next is punishment from which there is no opportunity of escape. Although God exhibits elements of His wrath here on earth, the full extent of His wrath will not be experienced or seen by anyone until the life to come.  So, if God’s wrath will be fully and eternally manifested in Hell, then why would it be manifested at all in this life? For Edwards, there are two answers to this question, and they both are interconnected with God’s future, eternal judgment: God’s wrathful judgement in this life may be His means of showing His sovereignty, by graciously deciding to save an individual who is currently living in sin, or it may be His allowing those for whom he has ordained an eternity in Hell, to store up their individually set amounts of wrath.
Edwards claims that God’s wrath here on earth is still intertwined with mercy, because He allows a “continuance of opportunity to seek mercy.” In this way, God may allow people to glimpse His wrath so that they may turn to Him and be saved. For example, in one of his sermons, Edwards recalls that some in his congregation had “remarkable warnings of providence” such as sickness, near-death experiences, and death of close family members. Sometimes, God chooses to save the wicked, even “at the eleventh hour” so that God’s sovereignty over the salvation of men may be on display for all to see. One example of this sort of temporal expression of God’s wrath is in the book of Lamentations. When Jerusalem had sinned and rebelled against God, the Lord placed His people “under the rod of His wrath.” However, after the author recounts all of God’s wrathful punishments over Israel, he concludes that “the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases.” The book of Lamentations recounts one of the many times that Jerusalem sins, the Lord evokes His wrath as a response for its sins, the Lord shows mercy to His people despite punishment, and the people finally repent from their evil ways. Therefore, God’s wrath may serve as a warning to drive His chosen ones to repentance so that the world may see how merciful He is.
The second way God’s wrath is manifested in this life, while not as obvious, has a direct effect on eternal punishment. Edwards claims that God appoints the wicked a certain amount of wrath that they will receive in eternity. This preordained wrath is then stored up in this life through the amount of time that God ordains that individual to live on the earth. Therefore, this manifestation of God’s wrath is not through immediate punishment, but rather in letting the wicked continue in their sin. Therefore, when God allows evil and wickedness to continue it is so that His wrath may come upon the wicked in eternity to the greatest possible extent.
While Edwards claims that Hell’s torments will be eternal for all people, regardless of how much wrath they had stored up during their earthly lives, he believes that there are still different levels of sin that require different levels of eternal judgement. When the level of sin has reached what God deems it to reach, then he or she will face eternal torment according to the level of their sin. This, Edwards argues is why wicked people are sometimes allowed to live long lives. While God seems to be “not punishing them,” He is really just allowing them to store up wrath for themselves.
God’s Sovereignty Negates Neither His Mercy nor His Justice
There are multiple possible objections to these claims regarding God’s wrath. Some may argue that if God predestined people to eternal torment, it would make him both unmerciful and unjust, since no one would have ultimate control over his or her eternal destiny. However, Edwards claims that God’s ultimate sovereignty over each individual’s eternity negates neither His mercy nor His justice, for three main reasons. The first is that, as discussed in the previous section, God’s wrath on earth is accompanied by the mercy of warning. He could have waited to manifest any wrath until His eternal judgement; however, He graciously allows His manifestation of wrath in this life to be an opportunity for others to repent and turn to Him for salvation before it is too late.
The second reason is that all deserve Hell, since each individual has ultimately rebelled against God. So, if God granted salvation to no one, He would be completely just in doing so, since granting salvation to anyone is an extension of mercy. In order to explain how God can be just while condemning people to Hell, Edwards uses the example of a judge. If a judge in the court of law were to condemn a criminal and declare that he receives the punishment he deserves, the judge would not be acting unmercifully, but rather justly.
Therefore, although all equally deserve Hell, God may, without prejudice and for the glory of His name, decide to give undeserved mercy to some and harden the hearts of others. However, while not extending mercy to an individual may be just, hardening the heart of an individual would seem to be unjust. In other words, it would be one thing for a judge not to extend mercy to an individual if that individual deserved punishment, but could it really be considered just for a judge to harden the heart of an individual so that that individual would not ask for mercy and then after that condemn that individual as a criminal?
Edwards explains that the reason why this hardening of hearts is not unjust is because it is not “any positive efficiency.” Rather, God hardens hearts in two ways, and without sinning in the process.  The first is by “withholding the powerful influences of His Spirit.” Therefore, in this way, God hardens a person’s heart only by withholding something which that person didn’t deserve in the first place. Without the Holy Spirit, a person’s heart, which has not yet been awoken by the Spirit, will remain hard and only harden more. The second way by which God can justly harden hearts is by “ordering those things in His providence” which a hardened heart will corrupt and abuse, causing that hardened heart to become even harder. Here, again we see that God’s act of hardening is not a positive act in which he causes an individual to not accept His grace, but rather, He allows (in His providence) certain events, that, apart from the Holy Spirit, would cause an individual’s heart to harden. Therefore, in both of these cases, God hardens hearts indirectly. He never, directly causes a person to sin or to reject His grace. Instead, He withholds His mercy, without which, one’s already hardened heart will only become harder.
This argument may seem to make God out to be an arbitrary puppet master, picking and choosing who will be destined to eternal bliss and who will be destined to eternal torment. However, while it is hard to reconcile God’s complete sovereignty with His mercy and judgment, scripture makes it clear that He does not desire to send people to Hell. For example, in 2 Peter 3, Peter says that the Lord is “patient” and “not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” Therefore, although God wants people to turn to Him, He still is responsible for hardening people’s hearts, which is still just because all deserve Hell.  God’s desire for repentance is hard to reconcile with His complete sovereignty over repentance. However, just because God desires that all repent, does not mean that this is what will ultimately bring Him the most glory. Edwards claims that the predestination of some to Hell is necessary for God to vindicate Himself, for God to be more fully understood as just, for the elect to fully appreciate their own salvations, and for the elect to be truly happy.
God vindicates Himself by condemning people to Hell in order to show all that “it is infinitely dreadful to condemn or offend [His majesty].” In other words, if people weren’t condemned to Hell, they would not realize how great an offence it is to rebel against God. Hell shows us how truly abhorrent it is to turn from God, because the infinite nature of its punishment shows us how infinite an offence we have committed. By condemning people to Hell, God is also more fully understood as just, because by punishing unrepentant sinners, He shows His unswerving justice. It makes Him “appear strict, exact, awful, and terrible” so that He may be more glorified. God’s condemnation of some to Hell also allows the elect to have a greater appreciation for their salvations, because they will see others in eternal torment and be all the more grateful to the Lord for sparing them from the same punishment.
The final way God’s condemnation of some to Hell is beneficial is that it will actually increase the happiness of the elect in eternity. This is because God’s people will ultimately be happier in eternity when they appreciate God for who He really is: perfectly just, and unconditionally merciful. Hell will be an eternal reminder for the elect of these divine qualities, which God’s people will joyfully relish in throughout the ages to come.
God’s Sovereignty Does Not Negate Human Responsibility
If God is completely sovereign over each individual’s eternal destiny, and if each person’s eternal destiny has already been preordained from eternity past, one may wonder how anyone could be responsible to repent and turn to Christ for salvation. Edwards, however very clearly believes that while God ultimately predetermines each person’s fate, this does not in any way take away the responsibility each person has to repent and turn to Christ.
Edwards acknowledges this belief by calling his listeners to flee from wickedness. He pictures people as being held in the hands of God over the pit of Hell. Those who are being held over this pit deserve God’s wrath, but the Lord graciously restrains Himself from removing His hand to let them drop. Edwards calls people to repent and flee from the wrath over which they so precariously dangle, yet he reminds them that it is God who graciously keeps currently unrepentant sinners from falling into the pit of Hell. In this way, human responsibility to repent is dependent on God’s mercy, yet God’s condemning people to Hell is still an action of removing His hand rather than an action of directly throwing people into Hell. God ultimately “offers [unrepentant sinners] mercy, if they will repent and return.” Yet, as previously discussed, without God’s bestowal of His spirit, those unrepentant sinners will never repent. One could argue that God is still the ultimate cause of these unrepentant individuals’ eternal damnations, and in a sense, this would be true. However, even without the bestowal of the Spirit, an unrepentant sinner could never excuse himself by claiming that he didn’t have the ability to repent, because we ultimately, as humans, have the freedom to choose repentance over rebellion.
While God remains completely sovereign over the eternal destiny of each individual, on judgement day, He will ultimately judge each person not by His predetermined will, but by the content of each person’s heart. For example, in Matthew 7, Jesus says that only those who do “the will of my Father” will enter the kingdom of heaven, and again in Matthew 25, Jesus says that those who “did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” In other words, on judgment day, God will send people to Heaven and Hell based on whether or not they repented and turned to Christ. However, the contents of each individual’s heart will ultimately align with God’s predetermined will. While this claim may seem to be a mere nuance, it is a critical distinction. Each and every individual is responsible to repent and flee from the wrath to come and place his or her faith in Christ alone. It is accepting or not accepting this offer of grace that will determine one’s eternal destiny; yet, in God’s complete and mysterious sovereignty, each person’s repentance or lack thereof, will always align perfectly with God’s predetermined will.
It can be hard for some to imagine a good God who predestines people to Hell. It may even seem that accepting such a doctrine would be claiming that God is unmerciful and unjust, but as Jonathan Edwards discusses throughout various sermons, it is exactly through predestining some to Heaven and others to Hell that He remains true to His mercy and justice, stays completely sovereign, and ultimately brings the most glory to His name. While this doctrine is both frightening and humbling, we must be willing to accept God’s complete sovereignty while acknowledging that it can never nullify individual responsibility to repent and believe in the gospel.
Edwards, Jonathan, God’s Sovereignty in the Salvation of Men. Ames, IA: International Outreach, Inc. Accessed April 30, 2023.
Edwards, Jonathan, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. Ames, IA: International Outreach, Inc. Accessed April 30, 2023.
Edwards, Jonathan, The Eternity of Hell Torments. Ames, IA: International Outreach, Inc. Accessed April 30, 2023.
Edwards, Jonathan, The Future Punishment of the Wicked Unavoidable and Intolerable. Ames, IA: International Outreach, Inc. Accessed April 30, 2023.
Edwards, Jonathan, When the Wicked Shall Have Filled Up the Measure of Their Sin, Wrath Will Come Upon Them to the Uttermost. Crossville, TN: Puritan Publications. Accessed March 14, 2023.
 Jonathan Edwards, The Eternity of Hell Torments, International Outreach Inc. P. O. Box 1286, Ames, Iowa 50014 USA, accessed April 30, 2023, .
 Psalm 85:3 (English Standard Version).
 Psalm 88:16 (English Standard Version).
 Romans 1:18-1:32 (English Standard Version).
 Jonathan Edwards, The Eternity of Hell Torments
 Jonathan Edwards, When the wicked shall have Filled Up the Measure of Their Sin, Wrath Will Come Upon Them to the Uttermost, A Puritan’s Mind, Accessed April 30, 2023, .
 Jonathan Edwards, God’s Sovereignty in the Salvation of Men, International Outreach Inc. P. O. Box 1286, Ames, Iowa 50014 USA, accessed April 30, 2023, .
 Lamentations 3:1 (English Standard Version).
 Lamentations 3:22 (English Standard Version).
 Jonathan Edwards, The Eternity of Hell Torments.
 Jonathan Edwards, God’s Sovereignty in the Salvation of Men.
Jonathan Edwards, God’s Sovereignty in the Salvation of Men.
 Jonathan Edwards, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, International Outreach Inc. P. O. Box 1286, Ames, Iowa 50014 USA, accessed April 30, 2023, .
 Jonathan Edwards, The Future Punishment of the Wicked Unavoidable and Intolerable, A Puritan’s Mind, Accessed April 30, 2023, .
 Matthew 25:40 (English Standard Version).