Is the Angry God of the Great Awakening the God of Today?
In the summer of 1741, during the Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s, Reverend Jonathan Edwards preached a sermon called “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” It left no small impression on its listeners, and to this day it remains one of the most famous sermons ever preached.
The sermon is delivered in three parts. The first begins with a verse from Deuteronomy 32:35
“Vengeance is mine, and recompense, for the time when their foot shall slip; for the day of their calamity is at hand, and their doom comes swiftly.”
As one can well imagine, anything that begins with such a heavy verse is not all sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows. Edwards focused on the "foot that shall slip," insisting that God will not prop the sinner up, but rather will let him fall of his own accord. The only thing that keeps sinners from hell is the arbitrary will of God.
Edwards argued that the only reason we’re all currently on this Earth at his moment, and not rotting in the fiery bowels of hell, is not our power, but the mercy of God. It’s not lack of power, He’s certainly mighty enough to cast any sinner into hell at any moment He pleases. Justice demands that all sinners face infinite punishment. Using powerful imagery, Edwards warns that “the furnace is now hot…the flames do now rage and glow. The glittering sword is whet, and held over them, and the pit hath opened her mouth under them.” It is a dark, and bleak picture that Edwards paints, and his message had a profound impact on the early colonists that settled North America.
The fervor of the first Great Awakening left such a profound mark on American Protestantism that its effects remain starkly visible even today, 276 years later. God owes us nothing. It is His mercy alone that delivers us from hell.
The furnace is now hot…the flames do now rage and glow. The glittering sword is whet, and held over them, and the pit hath opened her mouth under them.— Jonathan Edwards
Time Is Running Out
The second part of Edwards’ sermon is a reminder that we don’t have disposable time. God’s wrath can spring up without warning, at any time. At this moment, God holds the sinners in His hand. Unfortunately for all sinners, that hand extends out over the pits of hell. The only thing that prevents any sinner from meeting eternal punishment, right this very second, is the mercy of God.
But why would a vengeful God show mercy? He’s already angry. Very angry. As you read these words, you’re dangling over a lake of fire and brimstone. You have nothing standing between you and “the glowing flames of the wrath of God.”
There is nothing a sinner can latch onto to keep from falling into hell’s fiery furnace. At any moment, all God has to do is remove His hand and we’ll go falling into the bottomless gulf of eternal torment. This angry God that holds you over the flames “as one holds a spider or some loathsome insect over the fire” already detests you, and now you’ve gone and provoked Him further. Woe unto such sinners, for you have offended Him. You have incurred the wrath of an infinite God. Nothing you can do can save you from terrible and eternal punishment.
In this sermon, Edwards called out to the sinners to think about the peril they were in. He begged them to think about the immediacy of the danger. To him, the listeners are as children playing in the road, and God is the bus barreling down on them. Edwards reminded them that, for now, God stood ready to pity them, that if they call on Him, they may receive mercy. However, that came with the caveat: If they waited too long, their cries would be in vain and they will be thrown away by Almighty God Himself.
Jonathan Edwards removed any subtlety from his language. He believed that all of mankind was doomed to hell’s blazing torment unless they repented. No one knows when they will die. Edwards’ congregation was not guaranteed a year, a month, or even an extra five minutes.
Repent and You Shall Be Saved
In the third section of his sermon, Jonathan Edwards urged his listeners to convert. They were given a special opportunity to repent of their sins and seek salvation. He continued his admonishments that God would pour out His wrath to anybody who didn’t turn from their wicked ways. The converted will become the “holy and happy children of the King of kings.”
The day of favor for some would become the day of vengeance for others. With the day of judgement quickly approaching, you would do well to join those who had previously converted and repent. The eternal wrath of God will be unbearable, terrible misery, so do not hesitate, but confess your sins today, for your damnation could come in an instant.
Jonathan Edwards removed any subtlety from his language. He believed that all of mankind was doomed to hell’s blazing torment unless they repented. No one knows when they will die. Edwards’ congregation was not guaranteed a year, a month, or even an extra five minutes. Death can come suddenly and unexpectedly, leaving the sinner with no chance to beg for God’s mercy.
Edwards sincerely believed that if his parishioners died without knowing the saving blood of Christ, that they would be forever doomed to unimaginable torment. He wished to spare them that pain, and for that reason alone he minced no words in his emotional plea. He spoke with a burning passion that matched the hottest inferno that even the deepest, darkest, depths of hell itself could provide. And it worked. It has been reported that Edwards could not finish the July sermon because the congregation cried out; wailing, moaning, and pleading for salvation while he preached. "Sinners," and other similar sermons, defined the First Great Awakening, which in turn shaped the religious landscape of the new North American culture.
Edwards seemed to believe that God was a merciful God, but sadly that point gets lost among the vivid imagery of hellfire and damnation.
Is Jonathan Edwards’ Theology Biblically Sound?
Though it embodied the First Great Awakening, Jonathan Edwards’ impassioned approach may come across as too caustic and shocking for many mainline Protestants today. Notwithstanding, it may find a home in some of the small town churches of the Southern Baptist or nondenominational churches that color the landscape of the rural United States. Edwards did not take pleasure in a sadistic God who enjoys watching his children burn like a candle for all eternity. Rather, he sought to warn his flock against what he perceived as an imminent threat. One must, however, question if his theology is biblically sound.
It can’t be said that Jonathan Edwards didn’t know his Bible. He drew support from both the Old and New Testaments. Citing verses from Deuteronomy, Isaiah, the epistles of the apostles, and much in between, Edwards painted a picture of a wrathful deity. But is this the deity many Christians worship today? Would the God who loved the world enough to send His only Son to die a gruesome death on Calgary really be so eager to send His creation to the depths of hell? Would a deity who gave humanity chance, after chance, after chance, loathe mankind as a person despises a spider or cockroach?
For many Christians the answer is “no.” The Christian God is a loving God who “sent his Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that through Him, the world might be saved.” (John 3:17) The God of all heaven and Earth has no limit to His mercy. God is full of grace and ready to forgive sinners until their last dying breath. (This, of course, is not permission to sin, rather, it is a statement on the goodness of God.) Jonathan Edwards himself made that very point when he said that “Christ has thrown the door of mercy wide open, and stands calling and crying with a loud voice to poor sinners.” Edwards seemed to believe that God was a merciful God, but sadly that point gets lost among the vivid imagery of hellfire and damnation.
Nobody can honestly argue that they don’t sin. We all sin in one way or another, and if we’re honest, we can admit that. The question isn’t “do we sin?” Instead the question is “are we sinners in the hands of an angry God, or a merciful one?” Many well-meaning preachers warn about the dangers of hell. In and of itself, this is harmless. Unfortunately, some preachers seem stuck there, and that scares some people away from the faith entirely.
I once heard a preacher tell a story about a church with a pastor who spoke endlessly about hell. The congregation got fed up and complained to the bishop, who eventually replaced that minister with a new one. The new pastor was very well-received by the members of his flock, who followed his every word. One day the bishop came and listened to the new preacher, who just so happened to give a sermon on hell. The bishop asked some of the parishioners, "You had me get rid of the old preacher because he preached on hell, but this guy talks about it too. What's the difference?" The people replied, "Yes, it's true, both preachers spoke on the topic, but this new guy doesn't seem enjoy it as much when he tells us we're all going to hell."
The Word of God Is Love
It is a little too easy, it seems, for some to obfuscate God's message of love and righteousness with the message of our own sin. Sadly, this can have a deleterious effect on Christians. All too often, people turn away from the church entirely because they're told that God hates them. Why worship a deity who dangles you over the pits of hell? God desires our faith. He gave us free will so that we can choose to turn to Him. An overemphasis on hell removes that choice, and bungles the message.
Is God one we should fear, or revere? Should we live in constant terror of God’s wrath, or rest in His mercy? It goes without saying that all of us should turn away from our sin, but whom do we embrace when we do so? Do we fear God or respect Him? Contrary to popular belief, the two are not one and the same. We do not respect those we fear, we hate those we fear.
It is fortunate for us that God is the God of love and peace. The goodness and graciousness of God should bring immense comfort to even the most hardened sinner. Like a drop of water on a parched tongue is the mercy of God to an unworthy creation. And indeed we are unworthy, but we need not fear. God’s grace is by faith, and not works. It is a shame that any Christian would feel trapped in a relationship with a deity they perceive to be angry and abusive. Especially in light of the boundless love of God.
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© 2017 Anna Watson