I had long heard of this sermon, and had a little booklet containing the text of it lying around at home, but it was only recently that I finally got around to reading it.

Jonathan Edwards is a name that is becoming more familiar in Christian circles now (especially with the work of John Piper to keep reminding us).  Edwards was an American preacher in the 1700s.  Under his preaching (and others), America saw its first great revival.  One of the most legendary of these revival sermons was this one, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.  It was renowned because of the effect it had on its audience.

Listeners writhed in anguish.  Some fainted.

I didn’t quite faint, but then again, I am a Christian.  The sermon is quite to the point for the non-Christian: you are only ever a split second away from Hell.  You may think you’re young and healthy, but there are a million ways that young and healthy people can die, and when you do, if you’re not a Christian, you’re going straight to Hell.

Expand that out, with some of the most extravagant language used to describe Hell, and you have a sermon that would have been fairly chilling to an audience of the time.

The most interesting thing that I found about this sermon was how markedly different the style of preaching was back then compared to now.  I’ve grown up getting used to expositional preaching, where the preacher explains what the Scriptures mean (and usually keeps pretty closely to the text).  In fact, preachers who take one verse and then run off on tangents are usually regarded with a bit of suspicion because they’re not really preaching the Bible.

But in this sermon, Edwards, takes a handful of verses and runs with them for what must have been at least an hour.  In fact, the sermon is so strongly designed to scare that I think we’d be horrified at any minister that dared to preach it now.

I’m at a loss to know how to review something like this, because, despite the huge difference in style: 1) Edwards’ point about the reality of judgment is correct (just because we don’t like talking about it, doesn’t make it go away) and 2) many people became Christians because of that sermon and his ministry.

So are we too soft nowadays?  I don’t know.  What do you think?

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12 thoughts on “Review: Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God (Jonathan Edwards)

  1. The point you made about the reality of judgment is interesting, as you said, just because we don’t like talking about it, doesn’t make it go away. In regards to the style of sermon, it’s weird how things can change so drastically over time.

  2. You are correct. We don’t like to have our sinfulness exposed. Would you rather know about a danger and have the choice of how to deal with it or not be aware of it at all.

  3. I think in many ways, yes we have become too soft. We have taken too many things for granted. In many ways though, things have changed to where our focus has to be different tham back in the 1700’s when this was preached.

    Our battle today is so more spiritual than back in the 1700’s. Satan has become so much more rampant in today’s society.

    1. But if a sinner does not see and recognize his guilt before God, why then would he see the need for a Savior? For, “The Law was made not for the righteous, but for sinners…” The Holy Spirit uses the Law to show sinners that they are in need of forgiveness, am I right?

  4. You’re an idiot. You don’t have to be a christian to go to Heaven. And if you read the sermon it talks about God hating sinners, God hate NO ONE! And God doesnt choose who goes to Heaven or Hell, you do.

  5. I agree with Chris, and I would like to add that, furthermore, it seems very hypocritical of Edwards to preach about sin to the masses, whilst he commits one of the biggest sins himself: fear mongering. Jesus did not use fear tactics, nor did He preach about damnation. When saddled alongside sinners, non-believers, and Samaritans, all He ever spoke of was love, hope, and forgiveness.
    There are numerous Bible versus that talk about attachments to personal anxiety, and fear mongering: John 14:25, Matthew 6:34, Romans 8:31, 1 John 4:18… When Saint Francis of Assisi spoke to Pope Innocent III about religious devotion and faith, he quoted Luke 12:27 almost verbatim, and said, “Consider the lilies in the fields, how they grow. They neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not dressed like one of these.” This was said in response to the fear mongering of Rome at the time, and the anxiety that Francis’ followers were living a vow of poverty and rebuilding the church of San Damiono, against the behest of the wealthy of Assisi.

    I would also like to challenge your claim that what Jonathan Edwards was trying to convey about damnation is true at all. You said yourself that he was not actually preaching the Bible, but belaboring a militant monologue, that was peppered at the end with a few Bible verses that were extrapolated and taken completely out of context. Let’s take a look at one set of versus he relies very heavily on. Revelations 19:11-16.
    “Now I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse. And He who sat on him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and makes war. His eyes were like a flame of fire, and on His head were many crowns. He had a name written that no one knew except Himself. He was clothed with a robe dipped in blood, and His name is called The Word of God. And the armies in heaven, clothed in fine linen, white and clean, followed Him on white horses. Now out of His mouth goes a sharp sword, that with it He should strike the nations. And He Himself will rule them with a rod of iron. He Himself treads the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God. And He has on His robe and on His thigh a name written: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS.” (NKJV)

    Now, so much of the book of Revelation is very allegorical, metaphorical, and relies on very powerful imagery. It’s basically poetry, and I think should be understood as such. I do not mean to dismiss your own beliefs if you take these versus very literally, but I do not think most Christians do, nor do I think most Churches throughout history really did. I also do not think that Jesus Himself encouraged His followers to take every single word of the Bible literally, as He Himself used allegory to convey messages on several occasions.
    I have a very hard time believing that Christ, as compassionate, gentle, and merciful as He is, would actually “wage war” at all, let alone against the sinners He suffered so hard to save. In a way, it seems disrespectful to the Passion of the Crucifixion of Christ to think that He would ever do such a thing (or that He would ever need to). I also have a very hard time believing that any man on Earth (with the exception of when Jesus was on Earth) can fully comprehend or convey the idea or appearance of Heaven, and since John of Patmos (the author of Revelation) did not receive this information first-hand from Jesus while He was on Earth, the book of Revelation can not be taken as a reliable source of information on what Heaven, Hell, and the end of times will actually be like. Rather, it is a book of speculation, deep spiritual searching, and trying to work through the motions with art, and therein do its merits lay.

    With that said, there are 2 things that need to be questioned about this set of verses: 1) What does “wage war” and many of the other symbols actually mean in a this poetic sense? and 2) Are sinners directly addressed here?

    To make war, while emitting very graphic imagery, I think in this context simply means to be in opposition to something. We see it all the time in the media, with phrases like “War on Drugs” and such. Why should we give our ancestors any less credit for being able to use idiom to express an idea?
    Jesus’ robes are being depicted as dripping with blood… which makes sense if you consider the wounds of His Crucifixion. It doesn’t necessarily have to mean that He has slaughtered anyone, as I intensely decry, He would not.
    This passage says that a sword will come out of Jesus’ mouth and that it will strike… well, would you look at that, not at sinners, but at nations. Interesting. Throughout much of the Bible, this idea is also expressed, especially in other modes of poetry and song, like the book of Psalms.

    Psalm 46:10
    (KJV) — “Be still, and know that I am God: I will be exalted among the heathen, I will be exalted in the earth.”
    (NKJV) — “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!”

    See how the passage of the book of Revelation imitates certain aspects of this passage in the book of Psalms? Notice also, how this passage of Psalms mirrors the message of the other passages I brought up, as it invokes the words “Be still.” The Bible is once again telling us not to worry, fret, or rely on violence, or fear mongering. We do not need it. We should be still, and be comforted in the knowledge that everything is already in God’s hands (an attitude that was very prevalent amongst Christians in America before the time of Jonathan Edwards and the Great Awakening). He WILL be exalted among the nations, and on Earth. There is no question in the matter. We are only left to try to peacefully wait for the time to come.

    When the book of Revelation says that Jesus will wage war on nations, I think this is simply very poetic language conveying that the Kingdom of Heaven will “conquer” and replace all human institutions here on Earth. (“…on Earth as it is in Heaven…”). I think the message is that Grace will eventually be bestowed on everyone. Unfortunately, there are a handful of contemporary Christian theologians who like to call this “cheap Grace”… if that isn’t the most disrespectful thing I’ve ever heard uttered about the price already paid by Jesus’ blood!

    A word on Jesus’ rule with a “rod of iron.” I think that because of the differences between the western European cultural context, and the Biblical (Jewish, Roman, etc.) cultural context, that the imagery of an iron rod has been taken to mean something other than what it really means. Throughout much of the Bible, the imagery of the iron rod is evoked, and I think it has been confused with an iron fist. As a Hasidic Jewish scholar and friend of mine once explained it to me, in Jewish cultural context, an iron rod does not mean tough discipline. It actually symbolized the Word of God as it is presented to us in the Bible, as a vow or promise, which just like a iron rod, is unbreakable (or at least, it was unbreakable in most circumstances, especially at the time when this metaphor was written).

    This reminds me of a story about the early American Colonists, who slaughtered many Iroquois natives out of fear and misunderstanding. A colonist witnessed the tribes of the Iroquois nation make a pact, using a bundle of arrows as its symbol. To the Iroquois Nation, a bundle of arrows resembled peace between the tribes of the nation, arguing that a single arrow breaks when it stands on its own, but when bundled together the strength and solidarity of the united tribes would ensure the security of all. This pact was made at a time when the tribal warfare between the Iroquois was coming to a close. Unfortunately, because a colonist didn’t speak the language and didn’t understand this allegory, the bundle of arrows was taken to be a sign of war instead of a sign of peace, and the Iroquois nation was greatly damaged by the colonists as a result.

    So, you see, how we interpret signs is very important, and it matters that we understand cultural context so that we don’t make dire mistakes. This is doubly true for how we interpret the Bible. I think many religious wars could have been avoided had we simply understood our own spiritual heritage better.

    And this is probably the most important part of all: In this passage of the book of Revelation, Jesus is being depicted as quelling the anger/wrath of the Father aspect of the Trinity.
    The verse saying “He Himself treads the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God” has, I think, been traditionally misunderstood as Jesus riding on a wave of the Father’s wrath, and that He will come and “wage war” in this emotive state. But this is really misunderstanding the true message of this passage. In very contemporary translations of the Bible, this passage has been reworded in a way that makes much more sense to modern minds, and it usually goes something like as follows:
    “He walks on the grapes where wine is made, pressing out the anger of God, the All-powerful One.” He is seen as releasing the anger, I think in an almost cathartic or therapeutic way, in much the same way that Jesus’ Crucifixion was a sacrifice to substitute the eternal damnation of sinners. We re-present this sacrifice, and the resurrection, every Sunday at Mass, as part of our gratefulness and respect for this divine act. The book of Revelation is simply saying that Jesus will continue to practice the mercy, and the sacrifice that he has made for us, right up to the very end of times. That is a truly beautiful, heart wrenching, and much more reverent view of what this passage means, and it is also consistent with what Jesus has done for us already.

    Nowhere in this passage does it suggest that sinners will be cast off to hell, simply because they are sinners, or even because a they haven’t been converted to Christianity or baptised. Because of this, and also the following reasons, I am inclined to agree with Billy as well, albeit I would prefer to put the idea in a theological and Christian context, with the support of evidence by several works of Christian literature.

    Before taking the seat of papacy, while still a cardinal, Pope Benedict XVI wrote a dissertation on the fate of babies who die without being baptised, and other ambiguous cases. In it, he talks about how the hypothesis of a place called limbo, was just that. A hypothesis made by the Catholic Church. In it, he talks about the origins of the idea, tracing it back to the Latin word “limbus,” which means margin or boundary. The idea was that Christians believe that only those who commit atrociously evil acts will go to hell, because Jesus has already saved everyone through His sacrifice. But it became ambiguous because people who don’t get the opportunity to be cleansed of original sin in baptism, or who do not ever get the chance to hear the Word of God or to worship Him, are undeniably in a state of lesser or no Grace in comparison with Christians who have had time during their life to prepare for the gifts and bliss of God’s presence in Heaven. In the dissertation, Pope Benedict stated that the response to this ambiguity was the belief that they resided in a theoretical, mental conception of a “margin” where they do not belong in any of the places we know of, neither Heaven nor hell, and yet we are called upon in the Scriptures to simply trust that God knows what the right way to handle such cases would be. That’s all that limbo really means, and any conception of an actual place called limbo, is simply a metaphor or hypothesis. Other Christians simply believe that these ambiguous cases go to purgatory to be cleansed of their state of non-Grace so that they will be prepared for Heaven. Even Jesus Himself went to Purgatory to be cleansed before being resurrected and then subsequently ascending into Heaven, and all Christians go to purgatory before going to Heaven, so it makes some sense.
    You can read more on this here: http://www.catholicnews.com/data/stories/cns/0506867.htm (a basic intro)
    and here:
    http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/cti_documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20070419_un-baptised-infants_en.html (the actual text)

    This comment is getting long enough as it is, but I will briefly paraphrase Romans 8: Nothing can separate us from God’s love. We are freed from the punishment for our sins, because Jesus has already paid the price for us. “The Law could not make me free from the power of sin and death. It was weak because it had to work with weak human beings. But God sent His own Son. He came to earth in a body of flesh which could be tempted to sin as we in our bodies can be. He gave Himself to take away sin. By doing that, He took away the power sin had over us. In that way, Jesus did for us what the Law said had to be done. We do not do what our sinful old selves tell us to do anymore. Now we do what the Holy Spirit wants us to do.”
    Furthermore, a person does not have to be a Christian to be saved by the power of Christ’s actions. One simply has to follow the “influence of the Holy Spirit” or the “Spirit of Christ,” which Romans 8 describes as following the higher conscience that all people have thanks to being renewed through Christ’s love, and choosing not to please the old-self (the sinful self) with self gratifying decisions that do not show love and mercy toward others. It is really as simple as that. Literally, Romans 8 is saying that all it takes it to be a good person in order to live in the Grace of God. The ongoing commentary and actions of Pope Francis has shown that he agrees with this interpretation of Romans 8, and that he sees anyone as being capable of being saved, even without conversion (even though, of course as Pope, he would like to see more people becoming Catholic or practicing their Catholic faith).

    Paul the Apostle warned us in his epistles that there would be preachers who would try to misinform or coerce by fear or the acrobatics of words:
    (1 Corintians 1:17, and 2 Corintians 2:1-5

    “For Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel: not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect.”

    “And I, brethren, when I came to you, came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom, declaring unto you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power: That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.”

    I think you have unfortunately been troubled too much by the harmful sermons from people like Jonathan Edwards. We are meant to live in softness and in gentleness, not in hardness and fear. I do not think God would want guilt or concern to way so heavily on your conscience and on your heart. Ever since the Crucifixion of Jesus, God has never been an angry or vengeful God. He is ever a merciful, forgiving, and compassionate God of Love. I’m going to share with you a simple slideshow I found on beliefnet, that I hope will help ease your troubled mind:

    http://www.beliefnet.com/iLoveJesus/Features/10-Ways-To-Receive-Gods-Grace-Today.aspx

    “Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the Lord. And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice. And it was so, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle, and went out, and stood in the entering in of the cave. And, behold, there came a voice unto him, and said, What doest thou here, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19:11-13, KJV)

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