27 November 2000
A Humble Attempt to Explain the Position of Jonathan Edwards on the Justice of Hell
"The thing at bottom is, that men have low thoughts of God, and high thoughts of themselves; and therefore it is that they look upon God as having so little right, and they so much"
("The Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners" 679)
Does hell really exist? How can a loving God send people to hell? What is the purpose of eternal punishment? Jonathan Edwards touches on this subject several times in his sermons and other writings. According to Edwards, since the fall of Adam all men are sinners and deserving of hell because of their rebellion against God. God chooses to send some people to hell, where all belong, to glorify Himself by demonstrating his justice and his hatred of sin.
In order to understand the theology of Jonathan Edwards, one must first understand his basic explanation for the purpose of all things in creation. God created the universe and everything in it to glorify himself ("God's Chief End in Creation" 95-121). His creation is meant to show all of his attributes. He made human beings so that they could depend on him and he could show them his mercy. Human beings are fulfilling their purpose when they are rejoicing in the glory of God; hence, it is then that they are happiest ("God Glorified in Man's Dependence")
Since the proper task of every created thing is to glorify God by depending on him, sin may be defined as not depending on God. Sin is trusting in oneself against God, doubting the surplus and sovereignty of God, and refusing to accept God's provision. This is evident even in the first sin. When Eve trusted the serpent and was convinced that God was holding something back from her, she sinned. Adam, too, fell into this trap, and consequently God gave them what they deserved. They refused to trust him so he let them rely on themselves. Ever since the fall, man has been born into a state of sin. Man is born with a spirit of rebellion against God, an instinctive reliance on oneself and therefore hostility to the sovereignty of God. This is the doctrine of Original Sin. Man, in a state of rebellion against God, can do no good, can have no claim to mercy, and deserves nothing less than hell.
It is no argument that men cannot possibly attain their own salvation and therefore are unjustly damned. Men cannot do good not because they are not physically or naturally able, but because they are not morally able. Moral inability is an inability that carries with it guilt, as anyone who has ever sinned can understand by experience. When one says, "I just couldn't say no to that Budweiser," they cannot possibly mean that they are absolved of all guilt in this situation. In fact, the lack of control one feels when one is addicted is often the biggest reason for guilt and self-pity. No one ever tells a police officer that they just "couldn't" slow down and expect to get out of a ticket. In fact, the more in bondage we feel to sin, the more at fault we know we are.<1>
God may choose to have mercy on sinners, but is in no way obligated to do so. As shown above, it is evident that all people willingly and knowingly rebel against God, and therefore it is not necessary for God to bestow mercy on any of us. Edwards says of all sinners:
They deserve to be cast into hell; so that divine justice never stands in the way, it makes no objection against God's using his power at any moment to destroy them. Yea, on the contrary, justice calls aloud for an infinite punishment of their sins. Divine justice says of the tree that brings forth such grapes of Sodom, "Cut it down, why cumbereth it the ground?" Luke 13:7. The sword of divine justice is every moment brandished over their heads, and it is nothing but the hand of arbitrary mercy, and God's mere will, that holds it back. ("Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God")
In the first three chapters of Romans, Paul shows how God have revealed himself to all creation either in his law, as to the Jews, or in his creation, as to the Gentiles. For this reason, man is entirely without excuse for his rebellion against God. He is given every opportunity and abundant means of grace, yet he persists in his rebellion. Any kind of rebellion against God is no small matter. Edwards explains, "A crime is more or less heinous, according as we are under greater or lesser obligations to the contrary.... And therefore if there be any being that we are under infinite obligations to love and honour, and obey, the contrary towards him must be infinitely faulty" ("The Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners" 669). Any single sin against God, because He is an infinitely good being deserving of infinite respect, carries with it infinite guilt deserving of infinite punishment. Edwards shows that even one sin against God is sufficient grounds for deserving damnation, yet he goes on to show that man does not only sin once but is totally corrupt in every part, sinning regularly and obstinately, despite God's calls to repentance.
Since God is infinitely holy, it would be unjust for Him to admit a rebellious man into heaven ("Wicked Men Useful in Their Destruction Only"). Edwards states in this sermon that if men refuse to be actively used for the glory of God, which is their proper end, they will not succeed in frustrating His purpose. God will and should use their wickedness to glorify himself, and he does this by their punishment. God will give them their due and punish them for all eternity in accordance with their offense. This is what rebellious man, indeed all men deserve. Every single living being is born deserving hell. It makes absolutely no sense for one to protest on the grounds of innocence. This is simply the condition of the world: that men are worms and can do nothing to merit the mercy or even the attention of God. Men are rebellious disgraces and deserve eternal condemnation. They have rejected God's provision time and time again.
If there is anyone who doubts this, Edwards encourages a little self-examination in his sermon "The Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners." He makes it abundantly clear that every person has maligned the grace of God by sinning multiple times against God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, other people, and themselves. After Edwards finished this sermon, I doubt not that every mouth was stopped, and none remained to defend themselves against a holy and perfect God. According to Edwards, the law sufficiently stops the mouths of men in two ways: it stops them from boasting and it stops them from making excuses. We cannot earn salvation and we cannot defend our sinful actions, and that is precisely the point. We are lost, completely lost and deserving of eternal destruction. Since men so persist in rejecting the gifts of God and pursuing gratification of passions in a manner much like the beasts, it is not only fair but also necessary for God, in view of his complete holiness, to damn such abominations to hell.
In the eternal punishment of wicked men, God brings glory to himself. It would not be fit for Him to allow such men to remain in this world to enjoy his mercy forever. It would not be fit for wicked men to dwell in heaven with the saints. It would not be fit for them to remain upon the earth abusing the gifts of God and delighting in sin forever. These wicked men so defile the name of God by abusing his works that they deserve nothing less than eternal punishment. God is greatly glorified in damning the evil ("Wicked Men Useful in their Destruction Only").
As Edwards points out, the extent of man's corruption and reliance on himself is shown most obviously in his obstinate pride and confidence in his eternal security, regardless of his present state.
Almost every natural man that hears of hell, flatters himself that he shall escape it; he depends upon himself for his own security; he flatters himself in what he has done, in what he is now doing, or what he intends to do. Every one lays out matters in his own mind how he shall avoid damnation, and flatters himself that he contrives well for himself, and that his schemes will not fail. They hear indeed that there are but few saved, and that the greater part of men that have died heretofore are gone to hell; but each one imagines that he lays out matters better for his own escape than others have done. He does not intend to come to that place of torment; he says within himself, that he intends to take effectual care, and to order matters so for himself as not to fail. ("Sinners In the Hands of an Angry God")
In order to show his infinite mercy, God, in his wisdom, freely gives the gift of salvation to some people. He chooses some to be vessels of mercy and others to be vessels of wrath (Romans 9:22-23). God regards neither a man's previous works nor his works after his conversion, as having any impact on his salvation. Scriptures make it abundantly clear that man's work are completely ineffective in obtaining salvation, that none may boast (Romans 3:27). Since every man deserves hell, it is absurd to say that saving only some is unfair. God is under no obligation to save any man from hell. Regardless of this, some people think that God must be merciful to all that ask it of Him. Edwards argues against this idea:
Cannot he be excused from showing such a sinner mercy when he is pleased to seek it, without incurring the charge of being unjust: if this be the case, God has no liberty to vindicate his own honour and majesty: but must lay himself open to all manner of affronts, and yield himself up to the abuses of vile men, though they disobey, despise, and dishonour him, as much as they will; and when they have done, his mercy and pardoning grace must not be in his own power and at his own disposal, but he must be obliged to dispense at their call ("The Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners" 675).
Since man is completely corrupt, God is entirely responsible for the saving of any. He is not obligated to save any, but it pleases Him to do so. He chooses according to his sovereign pleasure who he will have mercy on. God can justly refuse or grant mercy to any person, "without prejudice to the honour of any of his attributes." This is shown in God's election of Israel over the other nations. God makes it clear that he elected them because of no virtue of their own; rather "it was from no other cause than his free electing love" ("God's Sovereignty in the Salvation of Men"). In order to show his attribute of mercy, God designates some to be saved. Edwards shows this by common experience:
God exercises his sovereignty in the advantages he bestows upon particular persons. All need salvation alike, and all are, naturally, alike undeserving of it; but he gives some vastly greater advantages for salvation than others. To some he assigns their place in pious and religious families, where they may be well instructed and educated, and have religious parents to dedicate them to God, and put up many prayers for them. God places some under a more powerful ministry than others, and in places where there are more of the outpourings of the Spirit of God. To some he gives much more of the strivings and the awakening influences of the Spirit, than to others. It is according to his mere sovereign pleasure. ("God's Sovereignty in the Salvation of Men")
The Arminian position is that salvation is a gift from God freely bestowed on anyone who will receive it. According to them, we all have the capability of receiving this free gift, and if we refuse it, then our damnation is just. Their position is an attempt to maintain man's responsibility for his own eternal destiny. Edwards would argue that the Scriptures do not support such a position, and neither does common experience. Man is responsible for his actions, but since he falls short of the glory of God, his eternal destiny is rightfully hell. Since man has no grounds to defend himself, any mercy shown to sinful man is up to God.
Some light may be shed on this subject when we consider other things that we call "gifts from God." No one claims that their consent was necessary for them to receive the gift of intelligence, or other various talents that they call "gifts from God." God did not set several talents in front of me and allow me to choose a few before I was born. God did not ask me whether I would rather be intelligent or musically gifted, he just decided. It obviously was no plan of mine to be born in America, blessed with a large family and great health. God did not ask me if I would accept the blessing of life, of cozy winter days, or of beautiful sunsets, yet I receive those blessings all the same. God does not need our consent to order the world as He wills. This includes our eternal destiny. God is sovereign, period.
Edwards also asserts that the elect in heaven will see the destruction of sinners and glorify God all the more because of it. "The glory of divine justice in the perdition of ungodly men appears wonderful and glorious in the eyes of the saints and angels in heaven. Hence we have an account, that they sing praises to God, and extol his justice at the sigh of the awful judgments which he inflicts on wicked men" ("Wicked Men Useful in their Destruction Only"). "They will rejoice in God's justice, in his righteous retribution, and in his anger against sin.
Not only will the saints rejoice in God's justice upon seeing the demise of the wicked, but this will also bring forth a greater love and appreciation in the saints for the mercy He has shown to them. it will give them a greater sense of the distinguishing grace and love of God to them, that God should from all eternity set his love on them, and make so great a difference between them and others who are of the same species with them, are no worse by nature than they, and have deserved no worse than they" ("Wicked Men Useful in Their Destruction Only").
What writhing, and fighting and turmoil the human soul brings upon itself when faced with the absolute sovereignty of God and the justice of hell! What pain as the remnants of American humanism, the proud belief in self-determination, and the presumed security in our own goodness is stripped mercilessly away! How ridiculous is the pride of man, and his claim to honor, and yet how prevalent!
What a pitiful place this brings us to; a lump of sins lying on the floor with no control as to whether God will stamp us to bits and throw us away or pick us up and wash us off! We are brought to a place of utter dependence on God and a complete abandonment of the ridiculous faith we once had in our feeble bodies. In this state, one cannot help but cease to presume God's mercy, cease to make excuses for sin, and cease to rely on oneself for salvation. This doctrine makes man realize his place in relation to God, and leads him to kneel at His feet and recognize his sovereignty. And this is precisely the correct place of man- utterly dependent on God.
<1> Analogy attributed to Professor Westblade
Edwards, Jonathan. The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol.1. "The Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners" Carlisle: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1998.
Edwards, Jonathan. The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 1. "God'ís Chief End in Creation." Carlisle: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1998.
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