Dr. John Gerstner on Edwards' View of Hell

Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) - The Works of Jonathan Edwards Online at APM

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Dr. John Gerstner on Edwards’ view of Hell
The Doctrine of Hell

“This doctrine is indeed awful and dreadful yet ’tis of God.”
In 1962 Clarence H. Faust wrote: “It is true that Edwards was much more than a sensational preacher of hell-fire sermons, but no fully rounded picture of the man can disregard that aspect of his work.” (Faust and Johnson, “Introduction,” p. xxiii.) It is evident that the present revival of interest in the “puritan sage” has not denied this aspect of Edwards but neither Faust nor the contemporary concern has done justice to Edwards’ emphasis on this theme.

Our age will not stand as much of hell as his own, and even it complained. Edwards wore himself out as he had said that Stoddard had done before him. In a 1747 sermon he laments:

And indeed when I went about preparing this discourse it was with considerable discouragement. I thought it was now some time since I had offered any discourse of this nature. But so many had been offered with so little apparent effect that I thought with myself I know not what to say further.

But however because I must warn you from God whether you will hear or whether you will forbear I have warned you again. It has now been told once more, whether you will yield to the power of God’s Word, to the force of the awful warnings and threatenings which the Word of God sets before you [or not]. If you will not hear now you may possibly solemnly lay these things to heart when you come to die. And if you continue in your stupidity to the last, being given up of God to a dreadful degree of hardness that is beyond the alarm of approaching death, which is the case with some, yet as soon as ever you are dead you will be fully sensible of all. (Unpublished MS sermon on Ex. 9:12-16, “They that will not yield to the power of God’s word shall be broken by the power of his hand,” p. 2, July 1747, pp. 42-43. Cf. MS sermon on Isa. 33:14, “That the time will come, when fearfulness will surprise the sinners in Zion [“those who are in a natural condition among the visible people of God”]; because they will know, that they are about to be cast into a devouring fire, which they must suffer for ever and ever, and which none can endure,” p. 5, Dec. 1740; printed as “Sinners in Zion Tenderly Warned,” Works, II:201-206. Cf. also MS sermon on Eze. 22:14 (1), “Since God hath undertaken to deal with impenitent sinners, they shall neither shun the threatened misery, nor deliver themselves out of it, nor can they bear it,” p. 3, April 1741 and 1755; printed as “Future Punishment of the Wicked Unavoidable and Intolerable,” Works, II:78-83.)

Consider also this lament from an earlier sermon. There Edwards reminds his people that they have been “told from Sabbath to Sabbath of eternal misery.” Still, they would not be stirred up or think about it. He continues:

You’ll see it amongst many middle-aged persons and so it is still with many when advanced in years and they certainly draw near to the grave. . . . And yet those same persons will seem to acknowledge that the greater part of men go to hell and suffer eternal misery and that through their carelessness about it, but yet they’ll do the same. (Unpublished MS sermon on Mark 9:44, “That the torments of hell will be eternal,” p. 3, Winter-Summer 1730, pp. 28-29.)

It was this great ever-present danger that drove Edwards to warn his generation so often. “’Tis a dreadful thing but yet a common thing for persons to go to hell.” (Unpublished MS sermon on 1 Cor. 11:32, “’Tis a dreadful thing but yet a common thing for persons to go to hell,” p. 2, Aug. 1741.) This will be among the laments of the damned. (Unpublished MS sermon on Prov. 5:11, “Subject, the mourning of sinners in another world,” p. 1, at Sargt. Allyns, March 31, 1751, and, St. Ind., 1751 (Andover Collection).)

After the spiritual drought following the awakening of 1734-35, God was pleased to pour out his Spirit again in 1740. Edwards observed: “If it should always have continued as it has been for five or six years past almost all of you would surely have gone to hell. . . .” (MS sermon on Isa. 33:14; Works, II:201-206. The quotations that follow are from the MS. See Section V.) Still, not everyone was being converted.

It is an awful thing to think of that there are now some persons in this very congregation, here and there, in one seat and another that will be the subjects of that very misery that we have now heard of as dreadful as it is though it be so intolerable and though it be eternal. (MS sermon on Isa. 33:14; Works, II:201-206. The quotation is from the MS, p. 42. See Section V.)

The closing dirge: “tell ’em of hell as often as you will and set it out in as lively colours as you will, they will be slack and slothful.” (MS sermon on Isa. 33:14; Works, II:201-206. The quotation is from the MS, p. 44. See Section V.)

Yet, we know that not all who heard Edwards were unconvinced. (MS sermon on Isa. 33:14; Works, II:201-206. The quotation is from the MS, p. 12.)

Some were even converted. There were still others who were neither despisers nor converts. Of them, he says that “they were neither awakened, nor at ease.” (This sentiment was expressed frequently in Edward’s preaching.)

Though it is virtually impossible to classify precisely Edwards’ overall distribution of sermons, I estimate that they run three to one in favor of minatory as opposed to comforting themes — a proportion reflecting the emphasis of the Bible itself. One must remember that Edwards does not use texts as pretexts, or even as mere points of departure for a topical development. He almost always begins with a contextual introduction and then proceeds to expound the meaning of his text, which he then states in the form of a “doctrine.” So when Edwards devotes these sermons to hell, he believes that the texts deal with that subject and that it is incumbent on him as a steward of the mysteries of God to do the same. With regard to his preaching in the gospels, in a rough sample check I found among the 140 sermons on Matthew, 13 devoted explicitly to heaven and 23 to hell. Of the 43 Mark sermons there were 7 on heaven and 4 on hell. Luke’s 111 sermons had 10 on heaven and 13 on hell. Many of Edwards’ Miscellanies deal directly or indirectly with this subject — Edwards, in his own table of contents, lists more than sixty.

Consider the following two works by Edwards that have been updated and republished for easy reading:

Ripe for Damnation: Sermons on the Book of Revelation – by Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758). Are you hungry for more of Edwards’ sermons? On the book of Revelation? These new works are not found anywhere on A Puritan’s Mind, and there are new ones not found in his large 2 volume works. 4 deal with the plight of the wicked, and 2 deal with the bliss of saints in heaven. These sermons are powerful, practical, and biblical, glorifying the Lord Jesus Christ, and contain 2 never before published sermons.

Justification by Faith Alone – by Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758). In this classic work, Edwards covers the intricacies of how believers are made righteous only through Christ’s merits, and that this justifying righteousness is equally imputed to all elect believers. This is accomplished by the condition of faith as an instrument.

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