Understanding Jonathan Edwards on Hell

Context:
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?

Comments

Jim Deardorff said…
This blog made me wonder if and how Edwards would revise his ECT theology if he had been aware of all the firm evidence from well over a thousand persons, each of whose most recent past life was identified beyond any reasonable doubt. That is, the problem for ECT is that past lives imply future lives (reincarnation), with some period spent between lives within the spiritual world, usually described as too amazing, awesome and different for words. This is quite distinct from hell, unless one considers it to be hell to have to undergo innumerable future lives in the physical world.

Would Edwards just shrug off all the evidence, saying he himself didn't have any past-life memories? Or would he say that past-life investigators, PhDs and MDs notwithstanding, didn't know what they were doing? Would he argue that just because some persons have had past lives doesn't mean that he has had any, or that he would undergo future lives? Other hypotheses have been made, which don't deny the validity of "childhood cases of the reincarnation type" first researched extensively by Prof. Ian Stevenson, to try to explain the phenomenon as something other than existence of the individual's immortal soul.
M Slater said…
I'm not an annihilationist, although I find it rather intriguing. Be it right or wrong though it seems that it could fit your Hell section rather well, at least as much as ECT does. Not dogmatic about any of these suggestions about annihilationism, but some food for thought.

Annialationist Theology (AT) 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.
(Ceasing to exist and being deprived of a potentially infinite existence seems to be a punishment of an infinite level.)

ii) Sin is refusal of our infinite obligation to obey God so it incurs an infinite demerit. Thus sin deserves ECT.
(Same as Above)

iii) Sinners in hell will continue to hate God and thus always incur more punishment. Thus retributive justice requires that hell be ECT
(I do not see what the evidence for this continual hatred, but if true than the hate would be retributivly dealt with in the annihilation of the one who hates)

iv) ECT is consistent with God’s glory.
(AT could also be seen as a way God demonstrates his glorious holiness and justice. Sin and rebellion in no way is marganalized or passed over in this approach.)

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.
(If in AT the redeemed are in a resurrected state one would imagine that they would never forget the grace God has shown them and the fate they were spared from, I am uncomfortable even if holding to ECT with the idea that we will celebrate the torment of others for all eternity.)

v) ECT is consistent with God’s sovereignty. He may do with his creatures as he wishes.
(How is God without exception eternally tormenting the unregenerate any less of a restriction on God's sovereignty than AT?)

vi) ECT is consistent with God’s holiness. His hatred of sin.
(AT also shows the outworking of God's 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).
(If sin will admitedly never be completly dealt with by ECT, than how does AT take away from God's justice anymore than ECT does?)

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.
(True, but it is not exactly mercy to be annialated, simply a different form of infinite punishment. In fact, we would not see AT as merciful at all if we had not developed a certain take on ECT right?)

ix) ECT is consistent with wrath.
(I see no reason AT is not)
The Pook said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Pook said…
Thanks for this post. A good summary of Edwards' argument. I think finite hellism is mistaken. ...and as for the so-called evidence for reincarnation and UFOs, well some people will believe anything but the truth, because the god of this world has blinded them and they will accept anything, no matter how whacky, before the witness of the Spirit of God speaking to them in the scriptures.

Gordon Cheng coincidentally has a short post about Keller on hell on his blog today too.
http://ingmarhingwah.blogspot.com
slater

I think that you are right that annihilationism is compatible with the fundamentals of JE's theological underpinning of eternal conscious torment.

This got me thinking. I suspect that with a little imagination even an evangelical universalist, such as myself, could argue that universalism is compatible with most of the same Edwardsian theological ideas.

I could argue, for instance, that God would be just if he punished someone in Hell forever. However, Christ has paid the price for all and so, thanks to God's grace and mercy, this fate will not, in fact, befall anyone. After all, as a good penal substitution person I might reason that God will not punish the same sin twice.

Clearly there are some of Edwards' ideas that I could not affirm. In particular I could not hold that God MUST display the glory of his justice by punishing some in Hell forever (making Hell essential for God). But then why would a good Calvinist suppose that God's sovereign freedom was constrained in this way anyway?

(Alternatively, if I am mistaken and God's justice does need to be demonstrated in this way then why not have a Hell with just ONE inhabitant - Satan? This allows God to display the glory of his justice in creation whilst redeeming all humans. So perhaps I could actually believe the whole Edwardsian theological package and be a universalist.)

So, at very best, I think that Edwards shows that eternal conscious torment is a possible option for God (and perhaps that is all he did intend to show).

However, as I argue in ch. 1 of my book "The Evangelical Universalist", I don't actually think that the kinds of arguments itemized here do show that ECT is an option for God (given what God has revealed about his nature). I believe that ECT is incompatible with the God revealed in Christ, in spite of the attempts of Edwards and others to argue otherwise.

Pax

GM
nick said…
The Bible clearly teaches that the wages sin pays is death. (Romans 6) It is as simple as that. We are only given everlasting life if God through His Son finds us worthy.

There is no need to create an everlasting torture chamber. That is just sick and sounds like something the Devil or Hitler would love to invent.

Pain was never a part of God's original purpose and one day like sin, death, hades and the wicked will be NO MORE. (Revelation 21:4)

The outcome of the wicked is seen in Obadiah 16, "they will be as though they never existed."

There is no point to continue to inflict on-going sadistic pain or torture on anyone. That punishment does not fit the crime folks and any reasonable, thinking baptized schoolboy can see it.

Respectfully,

Nick Batchelor
nickhawaii@gmail.com
Graeme said…
Here and now, the reality of God's presence is hidden from us by the physical world we live in. But moments after death, we shall be brought directly into God's presence - the God who is so great and majestic and glorious that the Bible says that even the heavens and the earth flee away from His presence.

Even for those who have been put right with God through trusting in Jesus, that experience will be terrifying - but it will also be like coming home. But what of those who persist in their rebellion against God? The light of his presence will beat down on them unremittingly. There will be nowhere to go; no place left to hide. The French atheist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, said:

The last thing I want is to be subject to the unremitting gaze of a holy God.
But in a universe created by such a holy God, that is exactly what will happen to him, and to all of us - how could it be otherwise? Perhaps you can avoid a sense of God's presence in this life, but not in the life to come. As theologian Jonathan Edwards said, for both the righteous and the unrighteous, eternity will be spent...

...in the immediate presence of God... God will be the hell of the one and the heaven of the other.
You see, hell is not about God being cruel to innocent people. Ultimately hell is the result of the way the universe is - that we are selfish and sinful people living in a universe made by a holy, just and fair God. Hell is as much the expression of God's goodness as heaven is. It is the expression of God's justice for those who will not accept His mercy.

If we have a problem with this, it is because we do not take our own evil seriously enough. We convince ourselves that we are innocent, and that we do not deserve to be judged. But there are no innocent people in hell - only the evil go there, just as only the forgiven go to heaven. In the end, you cannot be a self-centered person and a good person at the same time.

from... http://www.facingthechallenge.org/hell.php
EnnisP said…
Good questions to ask are:

If hell isn't eternal, how long is it?

Is hell (the place) eternal and if so must hell (the punishment) also be eternal?

If the "hell" we choose in this life can be repented of, then why can't the "hell" we inherit after death, often ignorantly, also be escaped through repentance?

All of these questions relate to personal choice, i.e., who can choose and when. And none of the three systems allow for it.

Universalism is presumptuous: Everyone eventually makes the same choice. Does anyone really think that?

ECT (Calvinism): No one gets to choose. Can anyone really believe that?

Annihilism: If unbelievers are completely destroyed, how soon after death does that occur? If immediately, why is there a hell at all? Why wouldn't unbelievers be destroyed when taking their last breath? It is an unnecessary interval unless, of course, a time for repentance (choosing) is allowed for, which as far as I know annihilists say little about.

Popular Posts