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Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God

by Jonathan Edwards
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What does Edwards hope to accomplish with his sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God"?  

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Jonathan Edwards was a part of the Great Awakening, a religious movement which advocated for intense and active religious experiences on the part of parishioners. We can definitely see this reflected within the rhetoric of the sermon in its use of imagery and the ways that these images channel fear...

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Jonathan Edwards was a part of the Great Awakening, a religious movement which advocated for intense and active religious experiences on the part of parishioners. We can definitely see this reflected within the rhetoric of the sermon in its use of imagery and the ways that these images channel fear of damnation.

In addition, however, I think there is a very strong Calvinist mindset which shapes this sermon (and which shapes the message Edwards intends for his parishioners to hear). Particularly important, from this perspective, is the notion of Original Sin, which is understood as a defining and inescapable feature of the human condition.

From this, however, arises a tension (which, I suspect, lies at this sermon's heart), because if Calvinists hold that sin is the universal plight of all of humanity, this does not mean that individual human beings will necessarily think too deeply on the problem of their own sin, nor about the possibility of their own potential damnation.

Indeed, there is something deeply personal in Edwards's rhetoric, as he makes an appeal to his listeners not to take salvation for granted, but rather to recognize that they themselves are not provided any guarantee of grace (nor are they provided any guarantee against premature death). Through that realization (I think it is Edwards' hope), they can more effectively reach for salvation.

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Jonathan Edwards delivered this sermon to his congregation in Northampton on July 8, 1741 and establishes his purpose with the two Biblical readings with which he chooses to open this sermon:

Though they dig down to the depths below,
from there my hand will take them.
Though they climb up to the heavens above,
from there I will bring them down.
Though they hide themselves on the top of Carmel,
there I will hunt them down and seize them.
Though they hide from my eyes at the bottom of the sea,
there I will command the serpent to bite them (Amos 9:2–3, NIV).

It is mine to avenge; I will repay.
In due time their foot will slip;
their day of disaster is near
and their doom rushes upon them(Deuteronomy 32:35, NIV).

These verses paint a particular image of God: He is a mighty force who will condemn sinners.

Edwards seeks to do nothing less than terrify his congregational members through this sermon and convince them of the need to repent of their sinful ways to escape the wrath of God—and Hell itself. In one particularly vivid section of the sermon, Edward compares his congregation to spiders dangling over a fiery Hell, only saved because God continues to hold on to them. And while He does, they have the opportunity to escape Hell by choosing to follow a more devout, pure, and Christlike life.

It is historically noted that the sermon, through its descriptive language and vivid metaphors, convicted the congregation so thoroughly that members fell into the aisles, screamed, and begged for salvation while Edwards was still preaching. In this way, his goal of making his congregation see the error of their sinful ways was quite effective. For, as Edwards himself notes, "There is nothing that keeps wicked Men at any one Moment, out of Hell, but the mere Pleasure of GOD." His congregation rushed to the merciful image of God, trying to escape the God of wrath who would surely condemn them if they continued on sinful paths.

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"Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" is a sermon written during the first great awakening so, consistent with other Christian theologies of that era, one of its goals is to strongly emphasize the point that hell is real and that it is terrible. Edwards paints the picture of hell that is most familiarly described with the term "fire and brimstone." This image is important because Edwards sees sin as a choice that men make and thus deserves to be punished for. Edwards repeatedly emphasizes that, for wicked men, there is no hope, and the devil could fall upon them at any moment. This is all to make the case that people should choose, instead, to avoid that fate by giving their lives up to Christ.

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The Reverend Edwards hopes his fire-and-brimstone sermon will frighten and inspire his congregation to become more obedient to the teachings of their Christian faith.

In "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," Jonathan Edwards, a Calvinist, strives to throw fear into the hearts of the Puritans in his congregation who have become wayward. Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Fear is an instructor of great sagacity and the herald of all resolutions," and it is apparent that Edwards enthusiastically embraces this concept, too. His frightening metaphors and imagery cause members of the congregation to flee from the church because they are so terrified.

Edwards's frightening sermon is composed around a passage in Deuteronomy, a book of the Old Testament in the King James Version of the Bible: "The foot shall slide in due time." Employing this metaphor of the slippery slide, Reverend Edwards cautions against spiritual sliding, telling his congregation that a yawning abyss waits for them, and only a gossamer thread holds them from the "fiery floods" and "fire of wrath" that are in Hell. In fact, he declares, it is only the "mere pleasure" of God that holds them from "fiery floods" and the "fire of wrath." Reverend Edwards frightens his listeners with these images in order to motivate them to be better Christians by returning to the precepts of their religious faith.

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