"Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" is a sermon written by British Colonial Christian theologian Jonathan Edwards, preached to his own congregation in Northampton, Massachusetts to unknown effect, and again on July 8, 1741 in Enfield, Connecticut. Like Edwards' other works, it combines vivid imagery of Hell with observations of the world and citations of the scripture. It is Edwards' most famous written work, is a fitting representation of his preaching style, and is widely studied by Christians and historians, providing a glimpse into the theology of the Great Awakening of c. 1730–1755.
This is a typical sermon of the Great Awakening, emphasizing the belief that Hell is a real place. Edwards hoped that the imagery and language of his sermon would awaken audiences to the horrific reality that he believed awaited them should they continue life without devotion to Christ. The underlying point is that God has given humanity a chance to rectify their sins. Edwards says that it is the will of God that keeps wicked men from the depths of Hell. This act of restraint has given humanity a chance to mend their ways and return to Christ.
"There is nothing that keeps wicked men at any one moment out of hell, but the mere pleasure of God."
Most of the sermon's text consists of ten "considerations":
- God may cast wicked men into hell at any given moment.
- The Wicked deserve to be cast into hell. Divine justice does not prevent God from destroying the Wicked at any moment.
- The Wicked, at this moment, suffer under God's condemnation to Hell.
- The Wicked, on earth - at this very moment - suffer a sample of the torments of Hell. The Wicked must not think, simply because they are not physically in Hell, that God (in Whose hand the Wicked now reside) is not - at this very moment - as angry with them as He is with those miserable creatures He is now tormenting in hell, and who - at this very moment - do feel and bear the fierceness of His wrath.
- At any moment God shall permit him, Satan stands ready to fall upon the Wicked and seize them as his own.
- If it were not for God's restraints, there are, in the souls of wicked men, hellish principles reigning which, presently, would kindle and flame out into hellfire.
- Simply because there are not visible means of death before them at any given moment, the Wicked should not feel secure.
- Simply because it is natural to care for oneself or to think that others may care for them, men should not think themselves safe from God's wrath.
- All that wicked men may do to save themselves from Hell's pains shall afford them nothing if they continue to reject Christ.
- God has never promised to save us from Hell, except for those contained in Christ through the covenant of Grace.
One church in Enfield, Connecticut, had been largely unaffected during the Great Awakening of New England. Edwards was invited by the pastor of the church to preach to them. Edwards's aim was to teach his listeners about the horrors of hell, the dangers of sin and the terrors of being lost. Edwards described the shaky position of those who do not follow Christ's urgent call to receive forgiveness.
In the final section of "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," Edwards shows his theological argument throughout scripture and biblical history. Invoking stories and examples throughout the whole Bible. Edwards ends the sermon with one final appeal, "Therefore let everyone that is out of Christ, now awake and fly from the wrath to come." According to Edwards, only by returning to Christ can one escape the stark fate he outlines.
Effect and legacy
Jonathan Edwards was interrupted many times before finishing the sermon by people moaning and crying out, "What shall I do to be saved?" Although the sermon has received criticism, Edwards' words have endured and are still read to this day. Edwards' sermon continues to be the leading example of a Great Awakening sermon and is still used in religious and academic studies.
Since the 1950s, a number of critical perspectives were used to analyse the sermon . The first comprehensive academic analysis of "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" was published by Edwin Cady in 1949 , who comments on the imagery of the sermon and distinguishes between the "cliché" and "fresh" figurative images, stressing how the former related to the colonial life. Lee Stuart questions that the message of the sermon was solely negative and attributes its success to the final passages in which the sinners are actually "comforted" . Rosemary Hearn argues that it is the logical structure of the sermon that constitutes its most important persuasive element . Lemay looks into the changes in the syntactic categories, like grammatical tenses, in the text of the sermon . Lukasik stresses how in the sermon Edwards appropriates Newtonian physics, especially the image of the gravitational pull that would relentlessly bring the sinners down  . Gallagher focuses on the "beat" of the sermon, and on how the consecutive structural elements of the sermon serve different persuasive aims . Choiński suggests that the rhetorical success of the sermon consists in the use of the "deictic shift" that transported the hearers mentally into the figurative images of hell .
- Choiński, Michał (25 April 2016), Rhetoric of the Revival: The Language of the Great Awakening, Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, ISBN 978-3-525-56023-5, retrieved 2016-07-04
- Conforti, Joseph (1995), Jonathan Edwards, Religious Tradition, & American Culture, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, ISBN 978-0-8078-4535-6, retrieved 2013-01-04
- Crocco, Stephen (20 November 2006), "Edwards's Intellectual Legacy", in Stein, Stephen, The Cambridge Companion to Jonathan Edwards, New York: Cambridge University Press, pp. 300–324, ISBN 978-0-521-61805-2, retrieved 2013-01-04
- Hart, Darryl; Lucas, Sean; Nichols, Stephen (1 August 2003), The Legacy of Jonathan Edwards, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, ISBN 978-0-8010-2622-5, retrieved 2013-01-04
- Kimnach, Wilson; Maskell, Caleb; Minkema, Kenneth (23 March 2010), Jonathan Edwards's Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, New Haven: Yale University Press, ISBN 978-0-300-14038-5, retrieved 2013-01-04
- Marsden, George (1 August 2004), Jonathan Edwards, New Haven: Yale University Press, ISBN 978-0-300-10596-4, retrieved 2013-01-04
- Ostling, Richard (4 October 2003), "Theologian Still Relevant After 300 Years", Times Daily, Associated Press, retrieved 2013-01-04
- Stout, Harry (20 November 2006), "Edwards as Revivalist", in Stein, Stephen, The Cambridge Companion to Jonathan Edwards, New York: Cambridge University Press, pp. 125–143, ISBN 978-0-521-61805-2, retrieved 2013-01-04
- Wilson, John, "A History of the Work of Redemption", WJE Online, 9, retrieved 2013-01-04
- ^Stout 2006, p. 139
- ^Crocco 2006, p. 303; Marsden 2004, p. 219f
- ^Wilson, pp. 29–30
- ^Marsden 2004, p. 221
- ^Marsden 2004, p. 222
- ^Ostling 2003
- ^Choiński 2016
- ^Edwin H. Cady, 1949, The Artistry of Jonathan Edwards, New England Quarterly 22(1), 61-72| https://www.jstor.org/stable/361536
- ^Robert Stuart Lee, 1976, Jonathan Edwards at Enfield: "And Oh the Cheerfulness and Pleasantness", American Language 48/1, 46-59.
- ^Rosemary Hearn, Form as Argument in Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, 1985, College Language Association Journal 28, 452-459.
- ^Leo J. Lemay, Rhetorical Strategies in Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God and Narrative of the Late Massacres in Lancester Country [in:] Benjamin Franklin, Jonathan Edwards and the Representation of American Culture (ed. Barbara B. Oberg, Harry S. Stout), New York: Oxford University Press, 186-204.
- ^Christopher F. Lukasik, 2000, Feeling the Force of Certainty: The Divine Science, Newtonianism, and Jonathan Edwards's Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, The New England Quarterly 73(2), 222-245. https://www.jstor.org/stable/366801
- ^Gallagher, Edward, "Sinners in the Hands of an Agry God: Some Unfinished Business", The New England Quarterly, 73(2), retrieved 2013-01-04
- ^Choiński, Michał, "A Cognitive Approach to the Hermeneutics of Jonathan Edwards's Sermons"(PDF), Theologica Wratislaviensia, VII, retrieved 2013-01-04
An Analysis of Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God
Jonathan Edwardss sermons were preached during the period of Great Awakening, a time of religious revival. In his sermons, Edwards used a variety of persuasive techniques, including vibrant images and simple metaphors to persuade sinners to repent.
One of the images that Edwards powerfully delivered to make people turn from their sinful ways is the comparison of Gods wrath to great waters, which after being continually contained, rise up and have the potential of destroying the people with a great fury; that is, if God chooses to open the floodgate. Another particularly striking image compares Gods wrath to a bow that is bent, with the arrow ready to pierce the heart of the sinner. Edwards used both of these images to convey the power of God to the people, many of whom were illiterate, and could not understand complex words. The people, whose lives were simple, had a respect for the land and the water, including its potentially violent nature, because they lived off the land. Additionally, the listeners knew firsthand the tautness of a ready-to-fire bow. They knew it would take considerable strength to hold an arrow very long once it was aimed at the target. They knew all too well that a well-aimed arrow hitting its target, the heart, meant instant death.
Through the effective use of metaphors, Edwards made comparisons to peoples everyday lives. He preached that their state of wickedness was as heavy as lead and therefore, pulling them down straight toward Hell. He was quick to say that salvation could not be obtained on their righteousness alone. He compared their chances of getting into Heaven on their own contrivance to the likelihood that a spiders web would have to stop a fallen rock. This analogy, like many others presented throughout his sermon, was meant to show the depth and magnitude of the peoples sin, and their complete dependence on the Almighty God.
Edwards presented an image of Gods wrath hanging over the people as black clouds. If God chose to come with fury, like a whirlwind, they would be like the chaff of the summer threshing floor. Again, Edwards related to the people an idea to which they could identify on a daily basis. All people knew that with the bountiful harvest, comes the rot and decay of unharvested grain.
In analyzing that God held sinners over the pit of Hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, Edwards was wanting to make Hell real for the listeners. Just as the people who lived off the land, would often torch a vile or poisonous snake, so would
God let them burn because he despised their sin and vile nature.
In modern society, as in the days of the Great Awakening, some people would pay attention to Edwards message, and some would not. Today, as in the days of the Puritans, there are those who would make application of Edwardss figurative descriptions, including vibrant images and simple metaphors, to their everyday lives. They wholeheartedly want to do what is right and reach Heaven as their final goal. Therefore, the fear of the unknown remains a valid technique to persuade people to do some act, or to refrain from that act, based on the laws of God and man. Most people would agree that a certain amount of fear is good for man because it instills in him a certain amount of discipline. We cannot, however, let fear overtake us. Oftentimes, the fear factor is dangled in front of people to persuade them to buy a complex security system for protection from the boogie-man, take a certain vitamin for health and longevity, buy a particular car for its safety, and vote for a particular political party because it will keep you safe from terror, just to name a few. The bottom line: Listen to Jonathan Edwards. Fear sells today, just as it always did. It will sell tomorrow. Make an informed choice and buy some. Avoid Hell.