We were all still recovering from a sermon by Charles Finney at the beginning of Wisdom Booklet #4, when we moved on to the subject of history. Where we were assaulted by another sermon.
"Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" is one of the most famous sermons in American history. But if there were such a sin as blasphemy, this sermon would be a fine example. From a Massachusetts pulpit in 1741, Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards described the Almighty as an arbitrary monster and his creation as loathsome.
Here are some excerpts:
...Whatever some have imagined and pretended about promises made to natural men's earnest seeking and knocking, it is plain and manifest, that whatever pains a natural man takes in religion, whatever prayers he makes, till he believes in Christ, God is under no manner of obligation to keep him a moment from eternal destruction.
There are the black clouds of God's wrath now hanging directly over your heads, full of the dreadful storm, and big with thunder; and were it not for the restraining hand of God, it would immediately burst forth upon you.
The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince; and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment. It is to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to hell the last night; that you was suffered to awake again in this world, after you closed your eyes to sleep.
But when once the day of mercy is past, your most lamentable and dolorous cries and shrieks will be in vain; you will be wholly lost and thrown away of God, as to any regard to your welfare. God will have no other use to put you to, but to suffer misery; you shall be continued in being to no other end; for you will be a vessel of wrath fitted to destruction; and there will be no other use of this vessel, but to be filled full of wrath. God will be so far from pitying you when you cry to him, that it is said he will only "laugh and mock"…
Though horrified by Edwards' God, I was transfixed by the vivid imagery. Our family also had a dramatized biography of Jonathan Edwards ("Puritan Preacher and Philosopher") on cassette from Moody Bible Institute. Not only did the story cover the theological controversies of Edwards' time, it did not shy away from describing the aftermath of the Great Awakening--including a man in Edwards' congregation who committed suicide in despair after too many similar "revival" sermons. Between the audio version and the traumatizing Wisdom Booklet, spiders and hellfire became forever associated in my brain.
When Walt Disney needed lines for this over-the-top "hellfire & brimstone" sermon in the film Pollyanna (1960), writers tapped "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God". In the movie, the preacher uses his pulpit to manipulate the town with fear and guilt. No one commits suicide (it's a children's movie, after all), but one character declares with passionate resentment, "Sundays around here give folks sour stomach for the whole rest of the week!" Though not delivered in Edwards' characteristic monotone, many of the lines are lifted directly from Jonathan Edwards famous message.
Jonathan Edwards has been John Piper's hero for decades, ever since Piper encountered Edwards' essays as a seminarian. Piper told a conference in 1988: "Alongside the Bible, Edwards became the compass of my theological studies." In 2006, Piper reprinted one of Edwards' books in a volume of his own: God's Passion for His Glory: Living the Vision of Jonathan Edwards. In the preface, Piper writes, "Jonathan Edwards is in a class by himself in American history, perhaps in the history of Christendom....I take my stand on his shoulders... It is an honor to be associated with an Institute devoted to exalting the God of Jonathan Edwards..." And so on.
This is the same John Piper who pastors a church in Minneapolis. The same Piper who posted these thoughts on the evening following the 2007 highway bridge collapse that killed thirteen people in his city and injured or traumatized hundreds of others:
The meaning of the collapse of this bridge is that John Piper is a sinner and should repent or forfeit his life forever. That means I should turn from the silly preoccupations of my life and focus my mind’s attention and my heart’s affection on God and embrace Jesus Christ as my only hope for the forgiveness of my sins and for the hope of eternal life. That is God’s message in the collapse of this bridge. That is his most merciful message: there is still time to turn from sin and unbelief and destruction for those of us who live. If we could see the eternal calamity from which he is offering escape we would hear this as the most precious message in the world.
...During our family devotions...Talitha prayed “Please don’t let anyone blame God for this but give thanks that they were saved.” When I sat on her bed and tucked her in and blessed her and sang over her a few minutes ago, I said, “You know, Talitha, that was a good prayer, because when people ‘blame’ God for something, they are angry with him, and they are saying that he has done something wrong. That’s what “blame” means: accuse somebody of wrongdoing. But you and I know that God did not do anything wrong. God always does what is wise. And you and I know that God could have held up that bridge with one hand.” Talitha said, “With his pinky.” “Yes,” I said, “with his pinky. Which means that God had a purpose for not holding up that bridge, knowing all that would happen, and he is infinitely wise in all that he wills.”
Talitha said, “Maybe he let it fall because he wanted all the people of Minneapolis to fear him.” “Yes, Talitha,” I said, “I am sure that is one of the reasons God let the bridge fall.”
I wonder how Jonathan Edwards would react to Piper's post today. I think it would give him "sour stomach". But I also like to think that the melancholic Edwards would preach quite differently if he could return to Northampton today.
Edwards was a thoughtful man, after all--trapped in the 18th-century, yet daring to test innovation. He was unafraid of change, of shaking up the status quo by implementing new ideas, of attempting to reconcile old ways of thinking with new understanding. He kept up with scientific advances, even submitting to smallpox inoculation as an example to the Princeton student body to risk the experimental new procedure. He died of complications, a sacrifice to the cause of science as well as to "the will of God".
The Jonathan Edwards of the 1700's would never make it as a preacher of the gospel today. For one thing, he purchased and owned Negro slaves, including a man and his wife who were sold by the executors of Edwards' will. I wonder what they thought of their master's god? But Edwards gave his sermon long before David Livingstone explored the African continent. Before William Wilberforce campaigned to bring down the slave trade. Before ex-slaver John Newton wrote "Amazing Grace". Before the Founding Fathers revolted against England. Even before the first performance of Handel's Messiah, which opened in Europe the following year (1742) with the words of a very different God:
Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned.Little wonder I developed anxiety issues after growing up with Jonathan Edwards' voice in my ear. Little wonder I was so relieved to find other theological viewpoints and to discover that others, as uncomfortable as I was, were asking the same questions!
Somehow, in my combined fright and abhorrence of a god who holds people over hell and lets bridges collapse, I had never considered (though Mark Twain had) the possibility of humans choosing hell for humanity's sake, or of turning down the invitation of heaven (as Desmond Tutu suggests) in solidarity with the world God is said to have loved. If hell is a place of hate, but one can choose it out of a heart of love, then is fear truly vanquished. Sour stomach must surrender!