person lying in the fetal position surrounded by hellfire

Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God

by Jonathan Edwards
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What are the symbols of God's wrath in "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God"?

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God’s wrath is a central focus of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”  The word is used about fifty times in the sermon.  In a nutshell, the sermon is about how God is really angry at the sinners of the world; it suggests that God should throw us into hell immediately.  Stated like that, the sermon isn’t all that scary; however, Edwards’s sermon is one of the great examples of a fire and brimstone sermon.  He uses graphic imagery to describe God’s wrath toward his followers.  The goal is that terrified sinners are repentant sinners and better Christians because of it.  

What’s nice about this sermon is that the images that Edwards chooses are familiar images.  He gives the congregation concrete examples of God’s wrath so that the people can better understand the image.  In 1741 America, colonists had a lot to worry about.  Two of their major concerns were fire and flood.  Fire, flood, and violent storms could destroy homes and/or entire towns.  They were a constant fear, so Edwards grounds his sermon in reality by choosing fire and water to represent God’s wrath.  

Edwards frequently relates God’s wrath to a fiery pit.  

The wrath of God burns against them, their damnation does not slumber; the pit is prepared, the fire is made ready, the furnace is now hot, ready to receive them; the flames do now rage and glow.

Edwards uses the fiery pit image again a bit later when he says the following:

There is the dreadful pit of the glowing flames of the wrath of God....

In keeping with the fire imagery, Edwards shifts God’s wrath to a furnace later in the sermon.  

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.

Probably my favorite water image of God’s wrath is when Edwards describes God’s wrath like huge flood waters being held back by a dam.  

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.

The destructive power of a dam letting go is unimaginable to me, which is why the image is so powerful.  

Probably my favorite image of the entire piece about God’s wrath is the image about fiery floods.  It’s a bit oxymoronic.  Water puts out fire; however, I can image a flood made of fire, and that is a terrifying thing to think about.  God’s wrath is a serious thing.

. . . 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, yea, ten thousand times greater than the strength of the stoutest, sturdiest devil in hell, it would be nothing to withstand or endure it.

I would be remiss if I said that the sermon only includes natural images of God’s wrath.  The sermon does relate God’s wrath to weapons at a few key points.  Edwards shows God’s wrath like a bow that is ready to fire an arrow and as a sword ready to slice.

The bow of God’s wrath is bent, and the arrow made ready on the string, and justice bends the arrow at your heart, and strains the bow . . . 

The glittering sword is whet, and held over them, and the pit hath opened its mouth under them.

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Jonathan Edwards uses many symbols in this 1741 sermon to express the extremity of God's wrath for those unfortunate souls who will, according to Edwards, suffer eternally unless they reform themselves quickly. Edwards relies, in part, on natural elements to symbolize and put into layman's terms the experience of God's anger. Below are six quoted examples from the sermon.

  1. "the glowing Flames of the Wrath of God"
  2. "black Clouds of God’s Wrath now hanging directly over your Heads"
  3. "his rough Wind"
  4. "like great Waters that are dammed for the present"
  5. "fiery Floods of the Fierceness and Wrath of God"
  6. "The Bow of God’s Wrath is bent"

The people living in New England in the 1700s lived very close to the natural world. Flames, black clouds, rough winds, and floodwaters were all destructive forces that could imperil earthly lives, and so Edwards chooses these phenomena to speak in terms that people could understand as terrifying and destructive when thinking of their afterlives. The final example, the bow, would have been a familiar and deadly weapon to a group of people who could easily imagine one wielded by an angry God.

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