When Edwards Described Hell
You Felt The Flames
I’m not sure what you would call it but the congregation’s response to Jonathan Edward’s famous sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, was not a revival.
He wasn’t speaking to heretics, hecklers or blasphemers. In fact, his hearers weren’t even skeptical. They were regular congregants and they were anything but slack. They endured long, dry, complicated, and often irrelevant or condemning discussions on Bible topics every week.
Deadening, yes, but showing up every week was a sign of determined commitment. They weren’t indifferent.
The services were probably lifeless – the effect had to be numbing – but we can’t blame the attenders for that and there is no reason to accuse them of being spiritually casual.
Mr. Edwards was clearly a very intelligent man with a remarkable ability to articulate his thoughts. But in spite of these abilities those who heard him found his theology difficult to assimilate.
On the one hand, he preached truths that were threatening. He did this often and no one articulated “damnation” more convincingly than Edwards. When he described hell you felt the flames.
But on the other hand, he preached a salvation that was entirely inaccessible to man. He believed in, and again, articulated better than anyone the idea that salvation was entirely the work of God.
No human response – desiring nor believing nor trusting nor confessing nor committing nor choosing – could result in salvation. God makes all the decisions and does all the work of salvation and He only saves those He preselected in eternity past, at least according to Edwards and most of his contemporaries.
Now imagine for a moment what it must have been like to hear Edwards describe graphically the images of hell and damnation and to visualize yourself hanging over and eventually descending into such a pit while at the same time not knowing with certainty whether or not you happened to be one of the specially God-favored preselected ones and you were totally incapable of any response to secure salvation!
To call that emotionally turbulent would be an understatement. It had to be horrifying to listen to Edwards, a man with extraordinary ability to paint word pictures, describe condemnation while at the same time providing no means of escape.
I don’t even understand the point of creating such psychological trauma when the outcome is already decided? It’s illogical. If people are condemned to hell without recourse, why torment them before they go?
Many people did respond demonstrably to these messages: falling on the ground, jumping out of pews and crying out for help but who could resist. A sermon like that to the ears of desperate and sensitive seekers was like a needle puncturing an abscess.
And to further aggravate the situation, Edwards’ version of truth never allowed inviting anyone to get saved or encouraging them when they inquired. According to history he and others like him were asked repeatedly about salvation: “Can I be saved?” – “How can I be saved?” – “How can I be sure I am saved?” and so on. And being true to his theology the answer was always the same.
Just pray about it. If God is going to save you, He will save you and if not, there is nothing you or I can do about it.
Because these questions were never resolved, desperation followed. In fact, the so called revivals of that time took what historians refer to as a dark turn. People became so convinced of their condemnation and were so uncertain of their salvation they became despondent and several committed suicide, Edwards’ uncle, Joseph Hawley II, being one of them.
I can understand that response. Seeking salvation for an extended period without gaining assurance is enough to make anyone suicidal especially if the preacher is constantly droning on about the agonies of hell.
At best, Jonathan Edwards’ approach was emotional battering or maybe we should call it bullying.
“I’m in, don’t know if you are, can’t do anything about it either way and here is what you have to look forward to if you’re not!”
Not a very pleasant message but take heart, Jesus was much more positive and encouraging. He said:
Come unto me ALL of you that labor and are heavy laden and I WILL give you rest! (Matt. 11:28)
Jesus, unlike Jonathan Edwards who traumatized his hearers with visions of torture, pled for the downtrodden to come to Him and gave an unqualified promise of relief to all who do.