Papers from Hillsdale College (1998)
REL 319 -- Eighteenth Century Theology:
Jonathan Edwards and American Puritanism

Edwards and the End of Mercy

by Michelle Anderson

Orthodox Christianity holds that when a man dies in a state of unrepentance, he is made to suffer the just consequences of his sin in hell for all eternity. Some, however, disagree with this theological position; a post-mortal chance for salvation is a possibility for them. Universalists believe that in the end, "every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father" (Philippians 2:10) and, as a result, all will be saved; none will perish but grace will reach each soul. Other, more moderate, theologians may argue that death does not seal the fate of an eternal soul, but salvation remains possible, even while the soul is being punished for its lack of repentance in hell. Jonathan Edwards rather effectively advocates the orthodox view of just, everlasting, and inescapable punishment for those who die outside of the grace of God with his arguments using reason and Scripture. The misery of sinners is not used as a mean of purification for the soul, but, since their time of death, the unrepentant soul is under the irrevocable judgment of a righteous God in the eternal tortures of hell.

To Edwards, a soul which dies in a state of unrepentant sin, away from the grace and mercy of God, has an inescapable eternity of misery ahead of it to justly pay for its sin; he ardently disagrees with theologians who view hell as a place where repentance is yet possible in that the tortures of hell may purify man's heart and cause him to turn toward God. Edwards argues that hell does not "purge the damned from their sins" (Works, 2: 515) as some might hope, but sin will abound and the hearts of men will grow increasingly hard. Without divine intervention, according to Edward's theology, a soul cannot of its own accord choose to turn to God nor salvation. Without this influence, then, the hardness of heart due to sin and unrestrained wickedness (2: 516) would only grow, and not only would salvation not be possible, but guilt would heighten as the habit of sin increasingly grew.

In order for hell to be a place of purification, however, men would have to continue in a "state of free agency that renders them properly the subjects of judgment and retribution" (2: 516); if repentance were still possible after death, God would continually offer his mercy to the souls in hell, and they would necessarily reject it with increasing intensity as eternity wore on, heaping more injury upon their own heads. If judgment, therefore, is not given at death, but the state of freedom that allows man to chose or reject the mercy of God continues, the soul that remains obstinate to God will be more deserving of divine wrath than he was when first cast into hell. If rebellion were to continue in the face of chastisement meant to purify the soul and mercy continued to be offered from the Father, the rejection of so great a gift would come from and lead to an irreversible hardness of heart.

Edwards indeed presents a legitimate argument in that if men continue to reject Christ in hell while still able to embrace His saving grace, they would only bring more guilt upon themselves. Edwards hastily concludes, without any Scriptural evidence, that no man would ever turn whole-heartedly to God while in hell.; his premise is, in this instance, not defended properly. It stands to reason, however, that Christ would not be forever reaching out a hand of mercy to the children that He loves in vain; if no man would ever accept the mercy of God while in hell, Jesus would have no reason to extend his mercy beyond a man's physical death if it would only serve to worsen his condition and never, in any circumstance, improve it. Scripture does inform us in I Peter 4:6 that "the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead." Would it not seem senseless, and even cruel, for the gospel to be presented to a people who, because of their position in hell, were morally unable to accept the mercy offered them but simply grew all the more guilty and condemned as the truth was told to them? The benevolent God of the Bible does not go out of His way to heap condemnation on the heads of sinners; He does, however, often go the extra mile to give the rebellious another opportunity to be saved for His mercies are new every morning. Moreover, John 5:21 and 25 state that "the Father raises the dead and gives them life." Whether this verse refers to the physically or spiritually dead, or both, is unclear in context; regardless, the words of John by no means limit the saving power of God to the time when the man is still alive on earth.

Experience also demonstrates that people often find God when they are made to endure the hardest, most sorrowful trials of their lives; an even more intensely dire situation in hell might prove to do the same. The conversion, of course, would have to be one in which the soul wanted to accept the mercy of God and worship Him in full spirit and truth and not simply a desire to escape the pains of hell. Being made utterly aware of the consequence of sin and death, a man might esteem the mercy of his Savior all the more.

Edwards arguments continue to attempt to demonstrate that hell must not be a place of purification because Scripture communicates that some people are beyond the grace and mercy of God on earth and in hell, and thus God has no compassion left for them. As is stated in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, some men's hearts are so hardened to the gospel that nothing will change them- not Moses, not the prophets, "they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead" (Luke 16:31). If all of these things are unable to convince them of their sinfulness and cause them to repent, nor will the tortures of hell. Edwards also points out that there are some that Christ does not extend his mercy toward, showing that he does not continue to give mercy to all when their hearts grow too hard. For example, John 17:9 says that Christ did not pray for the whole world, but only those who would be true believers (2: 522).

God has no pity on the suffering damned souls of hell for "God has no love to them... they are the objects of God's eternal hatred" (2: 209). According to Edwards in The End of the Wicked, once people are being punished in hell, they are beyond all hope, are objects of wrath without pity from God or the saints, and their tortures actually spur the saints on to worship and to praise the justice of God; "the glory of God will... be of greater consequence than the welfare of thousands and millions of souls" (2: 209); God does not reach out in mercy to those in hell, and He receives worship in heaven because of it. Nothing will come from God but "the fierceness of his wrath", and nothing will cause him to want him to soften the blows of punishment (2: 210). Edwards exhorts his congregation to beware if they are abiding in their sin and are not convinced of the great punishment awaiting them when the merciful hand of God reaches for them no more. They hang over hell "into which thou art ready to drop every day and every night" (2: 81). In hell, when it is too late, according to Edwards, you will know the greatness and power of God and the infinite depravity of your heart (2: 82).

Edwards arguments concerning God's lack of pity for the damned are inconsistent with the God of Scripture. He states "that God never loved" the souls which oppose Him, "but that he hates them, and [they] will be forever hated of God" (2: 210). Jesus, as described in the gospels, has complete love for everyone. The rich man, for example, came to Jesus to ask him how he could inherit the kingdom of heaven; He told him to sell all he had and give it to the poor. The man refused and walked away. but yet the Word says, "Jesus looked at him and loved him" (Mark 10:21). He loves even those who reject him. Not that He will curb His justice or His righteous anger toward them, but He loves them indeed and may have pity on them while they are in hell and offer them mercy until Final Judgment takes place.

Edwards points out in Hebrews 6:4-6 that apostates are people who are beyond where they can receive God's mercy; it is highly unlikely that they would be renewed to repentance after having turned away from Christ. If such people only grow to be entrenched more and more in their sin even after they are reaping the consequences of their apostasy and blasphemy, how much more would the souls in hell become more embittered toward God through eternity (2: 518). Blasphemers of the Holy spirit are also specifically pointed to in Scripture as being guilty of an eternal sin, without hope of purification in or deliverance from hell; no mercy or forgiveness is available to them. Matthew 12:31-32 declares that such a sin will "not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come." There are some, then, that on earth are hard to a point beyond redemption, and their condition in the afterlife remains the same; universalism is impossible. Edwards, of course, believes that all men will be in a similar state after death, beyond any hope of redemption (2: 519).

It is interesting that Scripture qualifies the statement concerning blasphemers; their sins may not be forgiven on earth or "in the world to come." Forgiveness, in general, is usually possible on earth, except in particular cases such as blasphemers and apostates, and the parallel construction of the sentence would seem to suggest that it is also possible for sin to be forgiven in the next world as well. The words of Jesus do not exclude the possibility of post-mortal salvation.

Edwards clearly provides Scriptural and reasonable evidence proving that a final, irreversible judgment is at some time necessary. As eternity continues and the hearts of the men in hell grow increasingly hard toward God, there will have to be a time when the merciful hand of God will be withdrawn for the sake of God's own name and character; for Him to continue to offer himself to people who have utterly trampled His name and His grace would be an abomination to Him who is above all else. Edwards also deduces from Scripture that the years of grace offered man will not exceed 120. In Genesis 6:6 God says that His "spirit shall not contend with man forever, for he is mortal (corrupt); his days will be a hundred and twenty." God will strive to reach the souls of men, offering grace, mercy, and calls for salvation for 120 years; at the end of that time, if man has not repented and embraced the goodness of the Lord, but has instead treated it with contempt, God will end their lives. At death, the calling and waiting of the Lord shall cease, and judgment will be made (2: 517). His interpretation of this verse in Genesis bolsters his case against a post-mortal chance of salvation and supports the proposal of a time when salvation is out of reach and only judgment remains.

Clearly Scripture demonstrates that mercy will not be offered for all eternity. A time of judgment will surly come. Genesis does indeed say that life is limited to 120 years; Edwards should not assume, however, that when God ends a man's earthly life, His mercy and benevolence toward his soul ceases. Perhaps God desires to put the rebellious soul under harsher circumstances in hell that he might be saved. Interestingly, Paul exhorts the believers in Corinth to expel an immoral brother from the church who will not turn from his rebellious ways in order to possibly bring him back to Jesus; "hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord" (I Corinthians 5:5). The harsh conditions of Satan are to be tools to bring this man to repentance that his soul might be saved. Could not hell be the same sort of harsh condition after the 120 years of grace on earth have expired? Edwards also declares that Christ's dual purpose as outlined in Scripture sheds light upon the relationship between salvation and judgment. In John 12:47 and following Jesus describes his role as Savior during his first coming, and his subsequent role as Judge at the second coming. In I Corinthians 15 Jesus is described as returning to reign as King and Judge; those who have rejected his salvation will be condemned and made His footstool. Instead of being Christ's heirs of salvation, they are destined to everlasting damnation at the judgment. Clearly, there is a separations between when Christ is Savior and when He is Judge; the window of salvation will one day close as His role as Savior ends and His role as Judge begins. It follows, then, that no one can possibly be saved after the Judgment. II Thessalonians also describes the Judgment at the second coming as final where the wicked will be "punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from he presence of the Lord." (2: 519).

If Edwards is consistent in his theology and holds that Christ may not be Savior and Judge simultaneously, his argument becomes contradictory concerning the salvation of souls in hell prior to Judgment Day. If Christ does not take on the role of Judge until the second coming, right before the Final Judgment, it is possible for him to be Savior for those on earth and in hell until that time. Edward's own proved premises does not permit Christ to be Judge of the dead in hell, putting them under everlasting, merciless torment, while at the same time remaining the merciful Savior of the living. Until the Second Coming, then, Christ is Savior of all, regardless of location. When Judgment takes place, he no longer offers saving grace to the souls in hell, for He has judged them and, according to Scripture, can no longer save them.

Edwards denies the possibility of salvation between the time of death and Judgment Day based on Hebrews 9:27: "man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment." Immediately after death the wicked men are made keenly aware of God's presence and their own guilt due to their sin, according to Edwards. As soon as death occurs and the soul leaves the body, it enters into the condition it will endure for all eternity, torture and damnation. Salvation is then out of reach. "As long as there is life, there is hope," and the moment death occurs, fate is sealed in a sort of general judgment. Revelation 14:10 explains that evil men will be tortured without end in the presence of the angels and the Lamb. Jesus, apparently, is present amidst the torture before the final Judgment but offers no saving grace to the damned; their fate is sealed, and their condition can not be altered or relieved. Moreover, the angels are "bound with everlasting chains for judgment on the great Day" (Jude 6); they, as well as the unrepentant sinners, can not escape the torments of hell according to Edwards' argument (2: 880-1).

Edwards assumes that Hebrews 9 refers to a direct sequential connection between physical death and judgment, making it impossible for a soul to be saved during the interval between the two. The passage actually discusses that just as man dies once, so did Christ die once to take away sin; the author does not state that a person is eternally and fatally judged immediately following death, according to the context. Moreover, I Corinthians 5, as discussed above in reference to placing the immoral bother under harsh conditions that his soul might be saved, the "day of the Lord", or Judgment Day, is referred to as the deadline for redemption, not the day of the particular man's death.

Edwards asserts that as soon as an unrepentant soul leaves a body at death, it is sentenced to an eternity of wretched, inescapable punishment in hell. The punishments are unavoidable due to the debt that must be paid due to sin, God's character of justice, and the ultimate end of God's glory. The Bible makes it abundantly clear that after the fall the natural appetites began to reign in the heart and led to the corruption of the soul that inevitably leads to death (1: 218). The consequence of sin are inevitable. The crime has been committed, and the debt must be paid.

Edwards argues that no matter how much God loves His children, His justice must reign; those who reject the gift of God's mercy and remain unrepentant in their sin justly deserve eternal death in hell. "God hath undertaken to right himself... to see that the debts due him are paid" (2: 78). He must guard His own character and is thus unable to force grace upon His enemies; in His justice He may not let sin go unpunished. In effect, then, "God glorifies his own majesty in the destruction of wicked men" (2: 127). All must contribute to the ultimate end of the Father's glory; according to Edwards, if people do not do so actively by serving and glorifying their creation through their lives and acceptance of the gift of grace, God must achieve glory passively through the subordinate end of the punishment of the unrepentant man in hell. These rebellious sinners are objects of God's justice and his "awful majesty" as demonstrated by those "dreadful and amazing punishments which he inflicts." This adds to the sense of happiness of the saints in heaven over God's grace to them in the face of the destruction of the wicked (2: 127). As the redeemed in heaven watch the wrath of God in action over the chasm separating heaven and hell, they will not by any means be filled with grief or pity, but expressions of joy and praise due to the abundance of God's mercy laid upon them (2: 208). Thus, God is brought praise and glory through the destruction of the wicked; the justice of God and the punishment that results from the sinners debt is a means to the ultimate end of God's glory.

Edwards also highlights Scripture's clarity concerning the eternal, element of the just damnation of sinners. Those who enter hell's flames will never be released. Sin, being so heinous as to deserve infinite punishment, must be paid for. Matthew 25:46 explains that just as the saints shall enjoy an eternity of happiness in heaven, so shall the unrepentant endure an eternity of punishment and heinous torture in hell (2: 86). Scripture abounds with references to the everlasting flames and punishment necessary to pay the debt owed by a sinner; Edwards reasons that these references obliterate the possibility of a universalist argument being true. Hell is a real place where people burn for eternity. Moreover, Scripture leaves no manner or condition under which man may escape such torments except in the world prior to death where offers of mercy and salvation are offered to us.

Edwards is definitely well supported by Scriptural evidence that the punishment of the wicked will be eternal and inescapable after the Judgment. The debt indeed must be paid. Edwards does not, however, sufficiently prove that salvation through the blood of Christ is not possible between death and Judgment Day. Eternal as the tortures may be, Scripture does not specify the time when this "eternity" begins. Edwards is unjustified in assuming without concrete evidence that eternal damnation begins the moment the soul leaves the body.

Jonathan Edwards presents many valid points pertaining to the inevitable, everlasting, and irrevocable punishment of the wicked which refute the possibility of universal salvation. His occasional misinterpretations of Scripture or lack of reason and thought prevent him from demonstrating with true clarity why he believes that men may not be redeemed during the interval between death and Judgment. Scripture does not rule out the possibility of a post-mortal chance of salvation, as Edwards wants to do in his treatises. Though one might not be able to stand definitively upon one interpretation or the other, Edwards overlooks some significant points in the formation of his theology concerning salvation after death. Before one should completely follow orthodoxy or Edwards in matters of theology, Scripture and a variety of reasonable viewpoints should be thoroughly investigated. Truth must be sought from all angles.

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Last updated: 25 May 1998