In the early 18th C universalism and annihilationism were not uncommon amongst intellectual Christians. Edwards (1703-58) was well aware of this and consciously defended the traditional view of hell as eternal, conscious torment (ECT) against its detractors.
Edwards is most famous (infamous?) for his sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." It is a powerful sermon but easy to caricature. Here is my attempt to sketch out the serious theology that underpins it (based on Christopher Morgan's book, Jonathan Edwards on Hell). It may not be theology that you agree with but it should not be dismissed with a wave of the hand.
Edwards’ Theology of Hell
Edwards was a systematic Christian thinker so his defence of ECT was strongly interconnected to his general theology of God and of sin.
(a) Edwards on God.
i) God’s glory. God’s glory, his fullness, is all of his moral and inherent attributes (e.g., knowledge, holiness, happiness). God’s actions are all ultimately done in order to communicate his glory. All of creation exists because of God’s glory and for God’s glory. It is the ultimate goal of creation.
ii) God’s sovereignty. God’s “absolute, independent right of disposing all creatures according to his own pleasure.” God is able to rule the universe, has a right to do so, and does so.
iii) God’s holiness. God loves good and hates evil. He cannot support evil.
iv) God’s justice. Justice was understood retributively.
v) God’s mercy. God is free to extend mercy if he wishes but he is under no obligation to do so (or it would not be mercy). Mercy is free and sovereign.
vi) God’s wrath. The expression of God’s holiness towards sin – his settled hatred and fierce opposition to sin and sinners.
(b) Edwards on Sin.
i) Sin is primarily directed against God. Therefore we need to evaluate its seriousness in the light of who it is that has been offended against.
ii) Sin is universal and innate. Original sin.
iii) Sinners are totally depraved - “totally corrupt in every part, in all their faculties, in all the principles of their nature, their understandings, their wills, in all their dispositions and affections.”
(c) Edwards on Hell.
i) Sin against an infinite God incurs infinite demerit. Hell is ECT because if sin was committed against an infinite God then the fitting retributive punishment is infinite.
ii) Sin is refusal of our infinite obligation to obey God so it incurs an infinite demerit. Thus sin deserves ECT.
iii) Sinners in hell will continue to hate God and thus always incur more punishment. Thus retributive justice requires that hell be ECT.
iv) ECT is consistent with God’s glory. It demonstrates his glorious holiness and justice. It is a cause of celebration and worship amongst the redeemed. It also indirectly demonstrates the glory of his mercy to the redeemed. They will look upon the damned and worship God for the wonder of his grace to themselves. So both heaven and hell serve the purpose of creation – to manifest God’s glorious attributes.
v) ECT is consistent with God’s sovereignty. He may do with his creatures as he wishes.
vi) ECT is consistent with God’s holiness. His hatred of sin.
vii) ECT is consistent with God’s justice. Sin is punished as it deserves to be although, Edwards says, strictly speaking justice will never be fully satisfied in hell. That is why it has to keep going on and on and on. The infinite punishment required will never be completed (except in Christ, the infinite God-man who can absorb it fully).
viii) ECT is consistent with God’s mercy. Mercy does not have to be extended to anyone so the fact that God does not extend it to all is no violation of mercy.
ix) ECT is consistent with wrath.
Edwards’ theology of hell is integrally connected into his theological system.
· How convincing do you find his system?
· Could his system work with alternative views of Hell?