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Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God

by Jonathan Edwards

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In "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," how does Jonathan Edwards personalize hell?

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Edwards's use of the word "you" throughout his sermon is the main way he personalizes hell for his audience—but even more so are the ways in which he describes it using vague, yet somehow descriptive, terms.

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Edwards's use of the word "you" throughout his sermon is the main way he personalizes hell for his audience—but even more so are the ways in which he describes it using vague, yet somehow descriptive, terms.

Take, for example, this section:

Your wickedness makes you as it were heavy as...

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lead, and to tend downwards with great weight and pressure towards hell; and if God should let you go, you would immediately sink and swiftly descend and plunge into the bottomless gulf.

His description of God and of hell as a "bottomless gulf" both captivate and strike a sense of doom into his audience. Because of Edwards's language, the listeners can easily see themselves in this scenario; however, that isn't the only reason. Edwards doesn't describe a specific "wickedness." By saying "your wickedness," he's allowing each member of the audience to imagine their own wrongdoings, their own wicked abilities, which lets them put themselves into this situation.

His vague yet descriptive language allows them to vividly see themselves plunging into hell. The same can be said for this section:

And there is no other reason to be given, why you have not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning, but that God’s hand has held you up. There is no other reason to be given why you have not gone to hell, since you have sat here in the house of God, provoking his pure eyes by your sinful wicked manner of attending his solemn worship.

Every person in his audience woke up this morning and can relate, whether they expected to go to hell or not, to the fact that they did not descend into hell overnight. Edwards again does not specify the members' "sinful wicked manner," only lets them imagine and recall what has gone through their heads or what they have done that may provoke the pure eyes of God.

A lot of this personalization does stem from Edwards's use of the word "you," but it's largely because of the "you" combined with his lack of specificity that makes the each member of the audience feel as if this sermon is written for them.

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The bulk of Edwards's 1741 sermon proclaims that God is entirely disgusted with sinners and stands ready to damn them to hell. He uses the personal pronoun "you" copiously to speak directly to those hearing him preach, as when he warns,

there is the dreadful pit of the glowing flames of the wrath of God; there is hell’s wide gaping mouth open; and you have nothing to stand upon, nor any thing to take hold of, there is nothing between you and hell but the air; it is only the power and mere pleasure of God that holds you up.

Hell is personified with a mouth waiting to gobble up the souls of the unrepentant. Edwards intends to strike enough terror in the minds of his listeners to bring lapsed Christians back to their faith and convert the unconverted. His sermon is an epic, mass accusation that seeks to speak directly to sinners; he counsels each of them to "consider the fearful danger you are in."

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How does Jonathan Edwards compare and contrast Heaven and Hell in his sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God"?

The fire and brimstone sermon by Jonathan Edwards is meant to throw fear into the hearts of those wayward Puritans- of his congregation, for as Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "Fear is an instructor of great sagacity and the herald of all resolutions." Paradoxically, Edwards was a Calvinist who believed in predestination, yet he also believed people are responsible for their actions. And, so, he preaches a sermon that is replete with fear-inspiring imagery.

The prevailing image of this sermon is the image of the bottomless pit of hell whose fiery floods wax high enough to burn the gossamer thread that holds the unworthy souls who are weighted down with wickedness in the first place. Edwards speaks in hyperbole: "the floods of God's vengeance"; "the fiery floods of fierceness"; the bow of God's wrath is bent, and the arrow made ready on the string and justice bends the arrow at your heart."

This frightening sermon of Edwards is constructed around a passage from Deuteronomy in the Old Testament of the King James Version of the Bible: "The foot shall slide in due time."  Using the metaphor of a slippery slide, Edwards, at a revival where his famous sermon was given, points to the dangers of spiritual sliding.  The yawning abyss waits for the sinners, whose wickedness makes them "heavy as lead," and only the "mere pleasure" of God keeps them from burning in the images of "fiery floods" and "fire of wrath."  Especially, the image of the sinner held over the fires of hell by only a gossamer thread is effectively fear-inspiring as many Puritans fled in fear from Edwards's revival.

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