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Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God

by Jonathan Edwards

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Discussion Topic

The portrayal of God's wrath and anger in "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God."


In "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," God's wrath and anger are portrayed as fierce and imminent. The sermon emphasizes the idea that humanity is constantly on the brink of divine punishment, held back only by God's mercy. Edwards uses vivid imagery to depict God's anger as a powerful force that could be unleashed at any moment, highlighting the precariousness of human existence.

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What is God's wrath compared to in "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God"?

In one of the many unforgettable images that Edwards uses in “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” he compares God's wrath to black clouds hanging over the heads of his congregation. These clouds are “full of the dreadful storm” and “big with thunder.” They can burst upon one's head at any given moment in a torrent of fury. That they do not is solely because God, in His infinite mercy, has chosen not to unleash his divine anger upon these wicked sinners.

It is uncomfortable, to say the least, to know that God's wrath is hanging over one's head at all times, ready to bring down a storm of divine rage at any given moment. But this is precisely how Edwards wants his congregation to feel. He wants them to realize that they are forever subject to the wrath of God and to the danger of being consigned to the fiery bowels of Hell for all eternity.

Try as one might, one simply cannot escape the wrath of God. And it is this inability to resist divine anger that the storm cloud image is meant to convey: God's wrath is always looming. The only reasonable recourse, Edwards argues, is to appease God as much as possible by submitting to His will, repenting one's sins, and accepting Jesus Christ.

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Why is God depicted as angry in "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God"?

Jonathan Edwards's God is angry because of man, his greatest creation. God created man to worship and adore him, as well as to love his fellow man. But man has strayed from his creator. Instead of remaining on the path of righteousness and living a godly life, he has become sinful and wicked, turning his back on his creator.

It would appear that man's sinfulness is intimately related to a lack of fear in God. Edwards hopes to remedy this deficiency in no uncertain terms by reminding his audience that God has the power “to cast wicked men into Hell at any moment.” If God doesn't exercise this power at any given time, it is because he chooses not to—not because he can't. The wicked and the sinful are therefore not in a position to be complacent. They may think they are safe from God's implacable wrath, but they are much mistaken.

In a particularly frightening passage of the sermon, Edwards reminds his trembling audience that God is angrier with many of them than he is with some of those whose souls are already burning in hell. That these members of the congregation have not yet been consigned to hell does not mean that God isn't angry with them; it simply means that he has chosen not to exercise his awesome power.

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What symbols represent God's wrath in "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God"?

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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What symbols represent God's wrath in "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God"?

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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What type of God is portrayed in "Sinners In the Hands of an Angry God"?

It may seem a bit obvious, but one way to describe God in Edwards's sermon is "angry." Edwards was preaching to a congregation who he considered insufficiently committed to their faith, and this sermon was intended to promote a new sense of diligence and piety in the community. To do so, Edwards portrays God as angry and wrathful toward sinners.

God is a great deal more angry with great numbers that are now on earth, yea, doubtless with many that are now in this congregation, that it may be are at ease and quiet, than he is with many of those that are now in the flames of hell.

These were strong words for those who felt comfortable, even lax in their faith. Edwards further emphasized that God was all-powerful and capable of casting any of them into hell. The only thing keeping anyone out of hell is the "mere arbitrary will, and uncovenanted unobliged forbearance of an incensed God." Edwards claims people are suspended above hell like a "loathsome insect," and God holds them in his hand only out of mercy. Edwards used such words as "loathe" and "fury" to describe God's view of man. He urged his people to accept the opportunity presented by accepting divine mercy, an

extraordinary opportunity, a day wherein Christ has flung the door of mercy wide open, and stands in the door calling and crying with a loud voice to poor sinners.

Edwards contends the Christian faith is the only buffer between human beings and a wrathful and angry God.

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