by Al Maxey

Issue #165 ------- December 27, 2004
Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows
he is to be hanged in a fortnight,
it concentrates his mind wonderfully.

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)

Hanging Helplessly Over Hell
The Fiery Sermon of Jonathan Edwards
Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God

Jonathan Edwards, the maternal grandfather of Aaron Burr, was born October 5, 1703, in East Windsor, Connecticut. His father was Timothy Edwards, a Puritan pastor. His mother was Esther Stoddard. Her maiden name is a very familiar one to you who are church history buffs. She was the daughter of the famous pastor Solomon Stoddard, who was the Puritan spiritual leader of Northampton, Massachusetts for some 57 years. Young Jonathan was a brilliant child and learned greatly from his studious father and grandfather. He learned to write from the time he could hold a pen in his hand, and at the age of six could conjugate Latin verbs. He was a master at languages, being taught Greek, Hebrew and Latin by his father. At the age of only thirteen he entered Yale, a college founded in 1701 as a more conservative alternative to Harvard, which many Puritans believed to be far too liberal. Edwards loved to study, and it was not unusual for him to spend fourteen hours a day studying. It was while at Yale that he was exposed to the wonders of Theology, a subject about which he became passionate.

Theology was not his only interest, however. Edwards was fascinated with insects, especially ants. It was his belief that if one could come to comprehend the wonders of the creation, one could come to better appreciate the Creator. Thus, he delved into the sciences. Not surprisingly, Edwards graduated from Yale at the top of his class in 1720. Just three years later he had earned his Master's degree. He was only twenty years old.

In 1727, after tutoring at Yale for a few years, Edwards moved to Northampton, Massachusetts where he served alongside his famous grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, as the assistant pastor of that church, which was the largest and most influential church outside of Boston. When his grandfather died some years later, Edwards assumed the pulpit Stoddard had filled. He remained in that position until 1750, at which time he was dismissed because of a controversy over qualifications for admission to the sacraments, specifically the Communion. He opposed the open policy instituted years before by his grandfather, and felt this allowed far too many "hypocrites and unbelievers" to commune at the Lord's Table. This led to a bitter battle with several influential members of his congregation, various fellow ministers, and even political leaders. The end result of this controversy was his dismissal. Edwards was simply regarded as too conservative for the times; people were quickly coming to reject what was known as the old "New England Way" developed by the early Puritan settlers. Times were changing, and Edwards had become a dinosaur.

Edwards decided to leave "civilization" and go to the mission field. He worked with the Mahican Indians (also known as the Stockbridge Indians) and the Mohawk Indians from 1751 to 1757 at a little mission outpost called Stockbridge, which was located at the western edge of Massachusetts. During this time he devoted himself much more fully to his writing, penning some of his most important works. This mission work helped to revive the spirit of Edwards, and in late 1757 he agreed to accept the presidency of the College of New Jersey, which would later come to be known as Princeton. He lived only a few months after moving there, however. He died on March 22, 1758 from complications following a smallpox inoculation. He was only 54 years old. He is buried in the cemetery at Princeton.

The Great Awakening

One of the major contributions of Jonathan Edwards to the American religious landscape was his influence upon revivalism in the early 1740s, a phenomenon known to church historians as the Great Awakening. Edwards was one of the great revivalist preachers who had the ability to whip the crowds into an emotional frenzy by his preaching. In his early years as a new pastor, Edwards had struggled with how best to go about facilitating a revival of faith among the members of his congregation. Some of the zeal of the early Puritans was being lost, and Jonathan Edwards struggled with how to recapture that flame among his own generation. After much deep reflection and fervent prayer, he resolved to personally approach the problem through his writing and preaching. Edwards became a powerful apologist for the faith of his fathers amidst an ever growing spiritual apathy, and his writings moved many to reassess their convictions. One church historian described Jonathan Edwards as "the first and greatest homegrown American philosopher" (Perry Miller, founder of the Yale Edition).

It was probably his preaching, though, that contributed most to the grassroots revivalism of the times. The scholars read the essays, but the people responded best to the sermons .... and Jonathan Edwards was a master orator! His speaking style was characterized as "unadorned, earthy, and earnest." He was extremely well-versed in the principles of psychology, and knew how to employ them in his preaching in such a way as to draw out highly emotional responses from the audiences. Some feel this was seen most dramatically in his sermon entitled "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," which is regarded by many as the most famous sermon in American history. It was delivered to a church in Enfield, Connecticut on July 8, 1741, midway through the Great Awakening, and literally caused a panic among the members of the congregation. Many of those present began screaming and weeping uncontrollably; they reached out and grabbed onto parts of the building and held to chair rails, convinced that the floor of the church building would open up and send them hurtling headlong into the fires of hell. That message has come to be regarded as the very quintessence of "fire and brimstone" preaching.

Reflections on the Sermon

Jonathan Edwards used Deuteronomy 32:35 as the text for his sermon -- "Vengeance is Mine, and recompense; their foot shall slide in due time; for the day of their calamity is at hand, and the things to come hasten upon them." The text speaks of God's impending outpouring of wrath upon those who oppose Him. Although the wicked seem to prosper now, their fate is assured if they fail to repent. Suddenly, when they least expect it, they will slip and fall into the pit of destruction. Thus, those who stand should take heed, lest their feet slide out from under them and they fall. Such a "slide to perdition" can come instantly, thus the need to hasten to the saving arms of the Lord. This was the plea of Edwards in this sermon. Although filled with awful images of horrific torture, it was designed to convict the hearts of the unredeemed so as to bring them fleeing to spiritual safety. Unfortunately, many "came to the Lord" NOT out of a deep love for God, but literally out of terror. They embraced God simply because they feared the consequences of NOT doing so. Commitment bred of fear and terror is a faulty foundation upon which to build one's faith. In time, when that fear diminishes, as it will, so will one's faith. A lifetime of faithfulness to one's Father, if it is to endure unto death, must be built on love. Those who seek to move people to a decision on the basis of such "fire and brimstone" sermons do their converts no lasting favors. Immediate response may be impressive, but lasting resolve is less so.

Jonathan Edwards, as was certainly true of many pastors during his time, was strongly influenced by the theology of John Calvin. This is especially seen in his repeated references throughout the sermon to the absolute sovereignty of God. The vast hordes of humanity are pictured as hanging helplessly over the gaping mouth of hell, held aloft only by the sovereign will of God Almighty, who, at any moment that it suits Him, will drop these sinful wretches screaming into the fire. Edwards said, "There is nothing that keeps wicked men at any one moment out of hell, but the mere pleasure of God. By the mere pleasure of God, I mean His sovereign pleasure, His arbitrary will." Later in the sermon he returns to this concept: "All that preserves them every moment is the mere arbitrary will, and uncovenanted, unobliged forbearance of an incensed God."

Edwards declared men to be so inherently wicked that "were it not for the sovereign pleasure of God, the earth would not bear you one moment, for you are a burden to it." "The world would spew you out, were it not for the sovereign hand" of our God. "There are 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 sovereign pleasure of God, for the present, stays His rough wind." Time and time again, Edwards informs his hearers that God is Sovereign, and that it is only due to His "arbitrary will" and "sovereign pleasure" that they are not now writhing in agony in the fires of hell. He also informs them that in the very next moment they just might be.

Edwards also sought to convey to the crowd another major tenet of his theology -- no amount of human effort, or good works, could deliver them from the fires of hell. They were utterly powerless to effect their own deliverance. Edwards believed very strongly that salvation was by faith, and not in any way by works. This too is evidenced throughout the sermon. "The foolish children of men miserably delude themselves in their own schemes, and in confidence in their own strength and wisdom; they trust to nothing but a shadow." Edwards declares that the unredeemed are "held in the hand of God, over the pit of hell .... and they have done nothing in the least to appease or abate that anger." God can not be appeased by anything we do, was the message of the sermon. "All your righteousness would have no more influence to uphold you and keep you out of hell than a spider's web would have to stop a falling rock."

In his sermon, Jonathan Edwards sought to convey the fierce ANGER of God against those who had not yet evidenced faith in Christ Jesus. His wrath is depicted as fierce beyond human comprehension. "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 ... you are ten thousand times more abominable in His eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours." "Yea, 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, who it may be are at ease, than He is with many of those who are now in the flames of hell."

As for the horrors of hell itself, Edwards was quite creative in his depiction of this realm of the damned. He was also quite graphic in just how near the unredeemed were to this torture pit, even though they were unaware of its nearness. "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. The glittering sword is whet, and held over them, and the pit hath opened its mouth under them." Satan and his many demons are right at the elbows of these sinners just waiting to begin their tortures. "The devil stands ready to fall upon them, and seize them as his own, at what moment God shall permit him." "The devils watch them; they are ever by them at their right hand; they stand waiting for them, like greedy hungry lions that see their prey, and expect to have it, but are for the present kept back."

"O sinner! 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. You hang by a slender thread." "The old serpent is gaping for them; hell opens its mouth wide to receive them; and if God should permit it, they would be hastily swallowed up and lost." "It is no security to wicked men for one moment that there are no visible means of death at hand. Unconverted men walk over the pit of hell on a rotten covering, and there are innumerable places in this covering so weak that they will not bear their weight, and these places are not seen." Edwards told the congregation that it was only due to the sovereign will of God "why you have not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning. 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. Yea, there is nothing else that is to be given as a reason why you do not this very moment drop down into hell." It's little wonder that many that day grabbed onto parts of the building for protection. They expected the floor to open up at any moment and swallow them up.

So, what was the solution to this imminent peril? How were they to find escape? "And now you have an extraordinary opportunity, a day wherein Christ has thrown the door of mercy wide open, and stands calling and crying with a loud voice to poor sinners; a day wherein many are flocking to Him, and pressing into the kingdom of God. Many are daily coming from the east, west, north and south; many that were very lately in the same miserable condition that you are in, are now in a happy state, with their hearts filled with love to Him who has loved them, and washed them from their sins in His own blood." Edwards urges them not to delay coming to the Lord for this cleansing of their sin; for some in the audience, tomorrow will be too late. "How many is it likely will remember this discourse in hell? And it would be a wonder, if some that are now present should not be in hell in a very short time, even before this year is out. And it would be no wonder if some persons, that now sit here, in some seats of this meeting house, in health, quiet and secure, should be there before tomorrow morning."

Edwards pointed out that many of their friends and loved ones, who had recently died, were already burning in hell. "Their case is past all hope; they are crying in extreme misery and perfect despair; but here you are in the land of the living and in the house of God, and have an opportunity to obtain salvation. What would not those poor damned hopeless souls give for one day's opportunity such as you now enjoy!" Jonathan Edwards closed his sermon with these words -- "Therefore, let every one that is out of Christ, now awake and fly from the wrath to come. The wrath of Almighty God is now undoubtedly hanging over a great part of this congregation: Let every one fly out of Sodom: 'Haste and escape for your lives, look not behind you, escape to the mountain, lest you be consumed.'"


Edwards observed in his sermon that part of the eternal satisfaction of the redeemed would result from being allowed to observe the wicked being endlessly tortured in hell. "The glorious inhabitants of heaven shall go forth and look on the awful spectacle, that they may see what the wrath and fierceness of the Almighty is; and when they have seen it, they will fall down and adore that great power and majesty." Love for our merciful Father will just burst forth from our adoring hearts when we witness the agonies of the lost. Or, so say many of the "fire and brimstone" preachers who even to this day continue to promote the abhorrent misconceptions of the traditional view of the nature of final punishment. This teaching is appalling, and, frankly, I'm thankful that such sermons as this one preached by Edwards are a rarity in the church today.

The belief that fear is a legitimate motivation for accepting Christ Jesus is unfounded. Fear-based faith is just as worthless to save as a works-based approach. Neither truly comprehend the grace of God or man's response of love. I pray that this visit to the pulpit of one of America's early preachers has been a revealing one, and that it makes you even more appreciative of those pioneers of faith, both past and present, who have chosen to focus more upon God's grace, mercy, love and compassion, directing searching souls to the joys of heaven, rather than depicting an angry Father who finds satisfaction in the perpetual, painful punishment of His children in hell.

Reflections from Readers

From a Prison Minister in Oklahoma:

Al, I have been a moderator in a 12-step recovery group for several years now, although I've never been a user of drugs or alcohol. The group is actually led by a recovering addict, and I have seen first hand many men brought to Jesus Christ through the fellowship of these groups, and through the teaching of God's Word that goes on in these groups. It is not the teachings of Alcoholics Anonymous that leads men to Christ, but the plain and simple New Testament Gospel -- Jesus Christ saving sinners -- that leads these men to want this salvation more than the next drink or the next fix, and it is in Jesus Christ that they find the strength to finally overcome the addictive behavior. The name of the program I use is CASA (Christians Against Substance Abuse), which is part of the New Life Behavior Program. Thank you for an excellent overview of the 12-step program. Thanks also for your tremendous efforts in study, your willingness to share, and your kind attitude toward those who may not agree with you. You truly help me in my walk.

From a Ministry Leader in California:

Brother Al, Thank you so much for taking on this huge topic. I truly believe that this article you have written (Stairway to Recovery) may save not only souls, but lives as well! By the way, I had never thought about the bronze serpent as an analogy for the Twelve-Step programs, but it makes absolutely perfect sense. The bronze serpent had but one purpose: to heal those bitten by the serpents sent by God to punish Israel. Nothing more, nothing less. Al, I would like to know what your policy is regarding making copies of your Reflections. I am leading a Recovery Leaders Training Class, and I would like to distribute copies of this Reflections article to the group as a resource and reference. Thank you so much for the hard work you put into this ministry.

From a Reader in Texas:

Thank you for succinctly presenting a Christian perspective of the 12-Steps. After 58 years of legalistic church enmeshment, I was led to attend many 12-Step meetings. I tested the steps and principles with biblical concepts. The personal inventory and accountability with a trusted and loving companion enabled me to see my sins and encouraged me toward the ever-deepening grace of God. The steps and principles have served as a vehicle carrying me to a greater joy, freedom and peace in my one Foundation: Jesus Christ. Thank you for fleshing out these principles as guides for our church communities.

From a Reader in Oklahoma:

Al, that was another good Reflections. I would like to add that the success of the AA program is solely based upon the principle of support (so as to keep one from yielding or losing courage). And this support not only comes from the group itself, but more importantly from a Power higher than the group -- an added strength that comes from beyond one's own capability. This causes me to think of those who teach that salvation is based upon our knowledge of the Bible and our own abilities to follow those precepts. This theology is spun upon the theory that we are NOT actually bolstered by God's Spirit (no direct operation), but that we only receive the Spirit indirectly through our knowledge of the Bible; that there is no actual source of power in faith, but faith comes only by our hearing and understanding the Word of God. So again, it's all thrown right back on the individual. And when we make religion all about ourselves (how much we know, how much we do), pride will inevitably overtake us. And God despises the proud and gives grace to the humble.

From a Reader in Texas:

I have worked with and through AA and NA for several years and have seen first hand the healing of Christians who were addicts. I also saw the abuse of and addiction to the program and group when it was allowed to become the substitute for meeting with fellow believers. The most frequent response of people who depended more on the 12-Step program than on their community of faith was that they felt accepted and very much a part of the group, and they didn't feel that way with their church. These statements ought to make Christians do some careful introspection of their own congregation so that they might try to determine if such an accusation has any foundation when describing their own fellowship group. If so, then they need to remove that cancerous element that refuses to accept the addicted person.

From a Reader in Nevada:

I have been reading Reflections for the past couple of years and really enjoy your insights. I was raised in the Church of Christ, however for the past couple of years I have been attending a wonderful Christian fellowship that is very Bible-based, although it does not have the same name on the building as the church all my family and relatives attend. Your articles are wonderful, and it is refreshing to know that not everyone in the Church of Christ is as narrow-minded as some of my relatives. Your article on the 12-Step programs hit home the most. When I first started going to Overeaters Anonymous I read the steps and thought since I had been a "church goer" all my life that it would be a breeze for me. Admitting that I was powerless over food was easy. And I knew God, so believing that a Power greater than myself could restore the sanity was easy. What was really a huge surprise to me was how hard step 3 was. Surrendering to God's will, and not my own, was a real struggle for me. It was from the other OA members that I learned to turn my life over to God's will ... and not just my eating, but everything: my worries, my fears, my character defects. My spiritual life has grown more since joining OA than in all of my years as a "church goer." Another thing I learned from OA that I never got from going to church was: "it is through our weaknesses, not our strengths" that we find healing. Maybe it was just the churches I grew up in, but no one in them seemed to be hurting. Everyone was PERFECT, and they kept their mouths shut when they were hurting. I just wanted to share a small amount of the healing I have found in a 12-Step program. I loved how you broke down every step and tradition and then related it to the church. God bless you and your work.

From a Reader in (Unknown):

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you and your family. You have certainly been a blessing to me this past year. My children tell me that I still may need therapy in order to get out of my "legal box." However, I feel with the tremendous amount of help from you, I am getting there! Have a blest year!

From a Reader in Washington:

We want to thank you!! Your writings are the best of any we have received or read over the years. So genuine, open and biblical --- very refreshing. We look forward to every one. May God bless you and yours with continued good health.

From a Reader in New Mexico:

Al, Thank you for recognizing the 12-step recovery program. Many Churches of Christ throughout the world have supported AA 12-step meetings. We at the Montgomery Church of Christ in Albuquerque, NM started a 12-step Christian study for our local church members and the local community two years ago and have been very blessed. We also have many people coming into our meetings from an AA background who are searching for a Christ-based support group study. Here are two web links that are very good resource sites: Overcomers Outreach and Christians in Recovery. Also, Keith Miller has a very good book out called A Hunger for Healing which is good at helping understand the 12-step program for Christians. Thank you for sharing your Reflections with us!

From an Elder in California:

I have been a big fan of yours since a church friend forwarded one of your Reflections earlier this year. I am an elder here in Northern California, and have been doing a lot of studying and praying about the direction we need to be heading. We have already started down that road but there is much more we still need to do. Your insights have helped bolster my desire to keep fighting the good fight. Your thoughts on death for the lost versus eternal punishing has been a real eye opener. I am keeping this concept to myself for the time being, but in time I will be talking about this and other doctrinal issues with a small group of truth seekers (after discussing it with the 5 remaining elders, some of whom will be in the group). It is an exciting time for the worldwide church because I believe the Lord's message is all the more relevant given secularism's in-roads into the culture and the threat of terrorism.

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