person lying in the fetal position surrounded by hellfire

Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God

by Jonathan Edwards

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In "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" by Jonathan Edwards, what are  specific similes and metaphors used in the sermon to persuade?

In “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” Jonathan Edwards uses several similes and metaphors to persuade his audience. For example, he uses a simile to compare God's wrath to a terrible flood. Edwards also uses a metaphor to express how even powerful rulers are nothing but “feeble worms of the dust” in comparison with God.

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In his sermon, Jonathan Edwards uses simple, everyday images to impress on listeners the severe and ever-present danger of falling into hellfire. In one potent metaphor, he describes the peril as follows:

Unconverted men walk over the pit of hell on a rotten covering, and there are innumerable places in this covering so weak that they will not bear their weight, and these places are not seen.

This paints a vivid picture of walking across a rotting bridge that hangs over a sea of hellfire just below, a structure which at any moment might give beneath you so that you would plunge into the flames. This is a frightening tableau of immediate, life-threatening danger. It is also a familiar image: most listeners would be well acquainted with the experience of standing on a structure, whatever it might be, that broke or threatened to break under their weight.

In a simile, Edwards likens human destruction, without God's grace, as

like a whirlwind, and you would be like the chaff of the summer threshing floor.

In this simile, a high wind or tornado would come up and lift a multitude of people away just as the wind does the chaff or waste materials from the harvest, such as corn husks. This is not a highly relatable image for most of us in the industrialized twenty-first century, but people who farmed for a living would quickly be able to conjure a familiar picture of the farm waste blowing away. They would know how ordinary and simple this occurrence is and not wish it to be their own fate. Further, this simile would bring to mind the many biblical passages in which God separates the wheat from the chaff and throws the chaff on the fire.

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Jonathan Edwards uses the emotional appeal of fear to persuade his audience that they should turn to God. A first way he does this is through the image of hell. He does this in a metaphor that suggests hell is a burning pit of fire that God holds his people over and is ready to drop them at any moment:

O sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in: it is a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wrath, that you are held over in the hand of that God, whose wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you, as against many of the damned in hell.

You can see this is also a metaphor of hell to mean a furnace... it must be hot.

A good simile is in this next quote:

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked.

Both of these quotes paint a picture of God that is mean as if He wants to doom people to hell. If I were in that audience at that time and heard Edwards utter this fire...

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and brimstone sermon, I think I would have been fearfully persuaded too.

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In this harsh piece of literature, there are three infamous figures of speech that Edwards employs and develops to impress the severity of the judgement of God on his listeners. He firstly compares the wrath of God to damned waters, with God holding back "the fiery floods". He then compares the wrath of God to a bent bow, whose tension is increasing as justice prepares to loose the arrow of God's vengeance upon those "out of Christ". Sinners are compared to "loathsome" spiders held over the fire and threatened with being dropped into the flames. Consider how one of these is presented:

The wrath of God is like great waters that are dammed for the present; they increase more and more, and rise higher and higher, till an outlet is given; and the longer the stream is stopped, the more rapid and mighty is its course, when once it is let loose... If God should only withdraw His hand from the gloodgate, it would immediately fly open, and the fiery floods of the fierceness and wrath of God, would rush forth with inconceivable fury, and would come upon you with omnipotent power; and if your strength were ten thousand times greater than it is... it would be nothing to withstand or endure it.

This is typical of the scare tactics and fear that Edwards uses to make his point, but of course this exaggerated, hyperbolic focus on the wrath of God completely ignores His other qualities, such as his love, mercy and compassion, which themselves are swept away by the might flood of wrath described by Edwards, leaving an exaggerated caricature of a God that is not appealing.

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The most famous of these is the simile in which people are spiders.  In this simile, Edwards says that God holds people over the pit of hell as if they were spiders or some other kind of "loathsome insect."  Because he uses the word "as" it is a simile and not a metaphor.

Edwards uses this simile as a way of showing the people how angry God is at them.  We encourages people to think of their attitudes towards insects and he says that God's view of them is similar to their view of those insects.

Earlier in the sermon, Edwards uses the spider simile to show how useless good actions are.  There, he says that right conduct is no more able to keep you out of Hell than a spider's web is able to catch a boulder.

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Which specific metaphors and similes in the sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" were probably the most persuasive?

Two metaphors (comparisons that do not use like or as) in Edwards's sermon that probably were particularly effective are as follows:

The corruption of the heart of the man is immoderate and boundless in its fury; and while wicked men live here, it is like fire pent up by the course of nature; and as the heart is now a sink of sin, so, if sin was not restrained, it would immediately turn the soul into a fiery oven, or furnace of fire and brimstone.

Fire is a word we immediately understand, and brimstone is sulfur that has been struck by lightning so that it smokes and gives off a stinking, unpleasant odor. In the Book of Revelation, there is a lake of brimstone into which Satan and his followers are cast by God. In Genesis, God destroys Sodom and Gomorrah (sinful towns) with fire and brimstone.

In the quote above, the heart of a sinful person, who has not turned to Jesus, is compared to fiery oven that would burn the entire person up immediately if he did not restrain his evil impulses. A sinful soul—that could explode and engulf our bodies in the agony of fire and brimstone, as if we had doused ourselves with gasoline and lit a match—is not a soul we want to have.

A quote I gravitate toward every time I write about this sermon is the following:

Unconverted men walk over the pit of hell on a rotten covering, and there are innumerable places in this covering so weak that they will not bear their weight, and these places are not seen.

Here, Edwards uses the metaphor of comparing the journey of a person unconverted to Christianity to a perilous trip over a raging pit of fire on a weak, rickety, rotting wooden bridge that could collapse at any time. This is a vivid and terrifying image and one that sticks with a person.

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