Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God by Jonathan Edwards

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Themes

The Immediate Danger of Damnation

Edwards begins by saying that the text he has chosen to expound upon in his sermon is Deuteronomy 32.35:

Their Foot shall slide in due Time.

This relates to God’s punishment of the wicked. The wicked are in constant danger of destruction, as “he that walks in slippery Places is every Moment liable to fall”—and when he does fall, he does so without warning. The only reason that Edwards’s hearers have not fallen and are not in hell already is that it is not yet “due Time,” the time appointed by God.

Edwards points out that God has infinite power, so he can clearly cast wicked people into hell whenever he wants. In this, God is not like an earthly prince, who may have difficulty in subduing a rebel. God does not depend on the number of his followers or on any other temporal factor for his power: he has infinite power in and of himself, and there is no way for anyone to guard against it.

There is no Fortress that is any Defence from the Power of God.

Not only that, but the Devil is poised “to fall upon them [the wicked] and seize them as his own, at what Moment God shall permit him,” since they already belong to the Devil by right.

Edwards spends much of the sermon countering the feeling of security that his listeners may have because they do not appear to be in immediate peril. He does this by emphasizing that there are many different sources of danger, any one of which may cast them into hell without notice. It may be that, as far as people can see, no means of imminent death are at hand—but this is because they cannot see very far. “The manifold and continuous Experience of the World in all Ages, shews that this is no Evidence that a Man is not on the very Brink of Eternity”; the next step, therefore, may take any of us into another world. “The Arrows of Death fly unseen at Noon-Day,” Edwards says, and the sharpest sight is unable to discern them.

There are any number of ways in which people may immediately die in their sins and be cast into hell. Edwards describes the sinner as hanging “by a slender Thread, with the Flames of divine Wrath flashing about it.” Much of the powerful energy and imagery of the sermon is devoted to this theme; Edwards clearly regards it as his primary mission to pierce the complacency of his listeners and awake them to a sense of their imminent danger. This must be accomplished in order for them to become sufficiently receptive to his other messages, including his final argument concerning the opportunity for salvation.

The Justice of God’s Wrath

Edwards’s sermon continually emphasizes that everyone deserves damnation. If God were not so infinitely merciful, they would be cast instantly into hell in any given case. Divine Justice (which Edwards personifies) makes no objection to all of Edwards’s listeners being cast into hell immediately. In fact, they are already sentenced to such a fate. Edwards quotes John 3.8:

He that believeth not is condemned already.

God is under no obligation to keep anyone out of hell. He has made no promise to do so. Indeed, the promise of Divine Justice is nothing but retribution for people’s sins.

In the most famous passage of the sermon, Edwards compares the sinner held over the pit of hell by the hands of an angry God to a spider or some loathsome insect which one might hold over a domestic fire....

(The entire section is 917 words.)