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Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God

by Jonathan Edwards

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How does Edwards structure his sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” by using hyperbole to describe the horrors of Hell by intimidating congregants with descriptions of Hell through a litany of wrongs committed by congregants through a series of metaphors describing punishments

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Jonathan Edwards did indeed employ a special kind of structure to his sermon. The four elements you listed (i.e. hyperbole, intimidation, litany of wrongs, and series of metaphors) exist within a greater context, and understanding the whole of the sermon, its message, and what led up to the sermon’s impact help to more effectively understand the structure Edwards used.

First, consider the more traditional, simple structure Edwards employed. While our purpose here is to better discover the full structure of the sermon, we must recognize that  Edwards started with a design conventional for his time--reading and explaining a text (in this case, Deuteronomy 32:35), a teaching on related topics that stem from the text (here, it is expressed in ten points), and directly applying the text to the audience.

Second, changes in the Enfield, Connecticut, community led to the eventual response of repentance expressed by the audience of Edwards’s famous sermon. People were dying of disease and construction accidents, and townspeople who once relied on their family name or basically good reputation began to have second thoughts about what was required to have one’s sins absolved. Edwards had already been preaching and teaching on the biblical principles of sin, life, death, eternity, and salvation to his own congregation in Massachusetts up until this point, and he designed “Sinners” as simply another sermon along these lines rather than the historical tour de force it would become. So everything you see in the sermon is typical of Edwards, and its effect (i.e., the Great Awakening) rather than the cause (Edwards) has deep roots in what was a spiritually sensitive subculture.

Third, the description of hell and the fate of sinful man was not far removed from typical Puritan thought. That is to say, the seriousness of a literal hell was a core belief among preachers of the same religious tradition. Thus, to say that Edwards employed hyperbole to describe the horrors of hell is accurate from a technical, English standpoint, but it was not an exaggeration relative to the theological teachings of the time. Moreover, it is important to define the kinds of intimidation Edwards expressed in his sermon. Edwards is known as a great wordsmith, carefully crafting each sentence of his sermon. However, his delivery of “Sinners” and other sermons was a monotone, dry performance. If anything, the audience felt intimidated by Edward's expression of Scripture and theological thought rather than by Edwards himself. In fact, Edwards was not permanently regarded as a hero by his own church and was later dismissed by a starkly lopsided vote. So, while his words were intimidating, his personality and reputation were not.

Fourth, the application of the sermon includes a strong call for repentance that emphasizes God’s love and mercy. While the sermon is often noted for its “fire and brimstone” imagery of hell and expressions of condemnation, it is also necessary to recognize that the historical significance of the sermon lay in the dividing line Edwards fixed between the saved and the lost. In other words, he was challenging the town’s belief that someone could inherit the grace of God through family lineage or general church attendance rather than by faith in Christ: “But surely they have no interest in the promises of the covenant of grace who are not the children of the covenant, who do not believe in any of the promises, and have no interest in the Mediator of the covenant.”

While Edwards vividly expressed the punishments of hell, he also attached that punishment to a sense of God’s justice. That is to say, God was not finding glee in punishing sinner, but he was exercising punishment out of  a sense of justice—evil requires a just punishment. Conversely, God’s mercy was also to compel sinners to faith in Christ:

And now you have an extraordinary opportunity, a day wherein Christ has thrown the door of mercy wide open, and stands in calling and crying with a loud voice to poor sinners; a day wherein many are flocking to him, and pressing into the kingdom of God. Many are daily coming from the east, west, north and south; many that were very lately in the same miserable condition that you are in, are now in a happy state, with their hearts filled with love to him who has loved them, and washed them from their sins in his own blood, and rejoicing in hope of the glory of God. How awful is it to be left behind at such a day! To see so many others feasting, while you are pining and perishing! To see so many rejoicing and singing for joy of heart, while you have cause to mourn for sorrow of heart, and howl for vexation of spirit! How can you rest one moment in such a condition? Are not your souls as precious as the souls of the people at Suffield, where they are flocking from day to day to Christ?

So, while Edwards did employ a variety of rhetorical strategies to his sermon (i.e., hyperbole, vivid imagery, etc.), it was not without special purpose and a subsequent call to faith that defined what we now know as the Great Awakening. 

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