Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God

by

Jonathan Edwards

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Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God: Part 2. Application Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
For every person in the congregation that is “unconverted” (not with Christ), “there is nothing between you and Hell” except the hand of God. Wickedness makes these people “heavy as lead,” and no amount of health, practicality, or righteousness can save them from hell.
The first section of Edwards’ sermon was a close reading of a Biblical text, focused on explaining the text’s implications. This section—the “application”—instructs the congregation on how to apply that reading to their own lives.
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Edwards tells the congregation that if they are sinners then they are a burden to the earth. God’s creatures are meant to serve God, and the sun doesn’t shine willingly on sinners, nor does the earth “willingly yield her increase to satisfy your lusts,” nor does the air willingly give breath to sinners. Thus, the earth “would spew you out” if not for the hand of God.
While Edwards has previously scared the congregation by emphasizing the evil nature of mankind, he now implies that mankind is actually naturally good and that their wickedness is so anathema to the natural order of things that the earth would, without God’s intervention, spit sinners out. Edwards’ rhetoric is still scary here, but this is a subtle shift to a more positive vision of mankind.
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The wrath of God is like dammed water: the longer it is pent up, the greater its force once it is released. Thus sinners, whose guilt is “constantly increasing,” are “every day treasuring up more wrath.” Were God to release the floodgates, sinners could do nothing to withstand or endure it.
Once again, Edwards turns to an easily understood metaphor in order to make concrete the power of God’s wrath. Like Edwards’ evocation of the theory of gravity with the “slippery slope” metaphor, this metaphor demonstrates Edwards’ interest in physics.
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This is the state of everyone who has not “passed under a great change of heart” and been “born again.” This rebirth is a strict requirement: despite reforms in other aspects of life or earnest (but improper) religious conviction, a person is “in the hands of an angry God” until they are awakened to Christ. Whether or not the audience is convinced of this, Edwards tells them that they will know the truth someday, just as those who are in hell now understand their errors on earth.
Edwards has referenced Christ several times before this, but this is the first sustained explanation of the stark choice facing sinners: hell, or being born again into Christ. Edwards has tried to stack the deck rhetorically with his horrible metaphors of hell so that the stakes of the choice are even clearer and so that nobody feels safe brushing him off.
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God holds sinners over the pit of hell just as one would hold a spider over a fire, and God hates sinners just as much as one might loathe an insect. “You are ten thousand times so abominable in his eyes as the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours.” The congregation has offended God unimaginably, and yet it is only God’s will that keeps them from hell. Edwards reminds the congregation that God is the reason they woke up on earth instead of in hell this morning, and God is the only reason that they haven’t been sent to hell while hypocritically worshiping in church today.
This is perhaps the most famous passage from the sermon because Edwards’ metaphors are so threatening and powerful. Throughout the sermon, Edwards has compared sinners to vermin (spiders, worms, etc.), and here he drives that imagery home. Sinners are truly precarious if God regards them as people regard vermin—most people don’t think twice before killing a spider.
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Edwards urges the congregation to consider what danger they are in: they “hang by a slender thread” over flames ready to singe and break that thread, and they have no recourse since they have not given themselves to Christ. He asks the congregation to consider the following things concerning the danger of God’s wrath.
Edwards gives the congregation yet another evocative metaphor, and then embarks on another numbered list to order his thoughts about God’s wrath. Again, this is a way to make sure the congregation is following the structure of the sermon.
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1. The wrath that threatens them is not the wrath of man, but the wrath of the “infinite God.” This wrath is immeasurably greater than the wrath of kings, whom people tend to deeply fear. While a king can inflict horrible torture on a subject who has angered him, all of the most powerful men on earth are “but feeble despicable worms in the dust” in comparison with God. God’s wrath is thus tremendously more terrible than the wrath of even the most powerful men.
In trying to make the congregation grasp the power and wrath of God, Edwards says that God is exponentially more powerful than the most powerful person they can imagine, which was a king (in 1741, the United States did not yet exist, and Connecticut was a colony of Britain, ruled by King George III).
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2. The wrath of God is itself frightening, but it is the fierceness and fury of that wrath that must be noted. Edwards quotes several Biblical passages that describe this fury, and then remarks, “Who can utter or conceive what such expressions carry in them!” But God’s wrath, Edwards notes, isn’t just an expression—it is real, and whomever is subject to it will be sunk into an “inexpressible, inconceivable depth of misery.”
This is a subtler example of Edwards attempting to anticipate and respond to the congregation’s objections. Even though Edwards has used horrifying metaphors throughout the sermon, he points out that language and imagery pale before the true fury of God—just in case anyone was thus far unmoved.
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The fierceness of God’s wrath implies that it will be inflicted without pity: God will not have compassion for suffering, nor will he show mercy or restraint, except that nobody shall suffer “beyond what strict justice requires.” However, even punishment within these limits is unbearable, and suffering will not be withheld simply because the punishment is so terrible.
Here, Edwards addresses another misconception: just because God is just does not mean he must be merciful. However, for the first time, Edwards nods to the limits of God’s punishment by saying that God won’t torture sinners unjustly. He doesn’t explore this point further, though, because it’s contrary to his goal of terrifying the congregation.
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Edwards notes that God is ready to pity the congregation, as today “is a day of mercy.” Once this day of mercy is past, though, no amount of crying can change their fate. If sinners let this opportunity pass, then God will consider them to be vessels with no use but “to be filled full of wrath.” If the sinners cry, God will not pity them, but will “laugh and mock.”
This is a slightly imprecise statement, since in Edwards’ theology, it’s Christ—not God (the Father)—who will save the sinners. Edwards gives no other indication that God would show pity, so this statement should be taken loosely.
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“How awful are these words,” Edwards says of “the words of the Great God,” quoting a passage from the Book of Isaiah in which God promises to tread on sinners in anger until their blood stains his clothes. Edwards says that it’s impossible to think of a statement with more “contempt, hatred, and fierceness of indignation.” This shows that God won’t pity sinners, even if they cry: instead, he will express his hatred through violence, and their rightful place will be under his foot.
This is one of the only moments in the sermon in which one of Edwards’ Biblical quotations seem to match the intensity and violence of Edwards’ own metaphors. The image of God trampling sinners until his clothes are soaked with blood is startling, and it signals to the congregation that Edwards’ rhetoric isn’t excessive: it’s backed by the Bible.
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3. Sometimes, just like kings desire to demonstrate the force of their wrath, God wants to show people how good his love is and how terrible is his wrath. Thus, the sinners in the congregation might expect to be made an example of: in a state of “suffering the infinite weight and power of his indignation,” the sinner could be observed by “the whole universe,” including the angels and the inhabitants of heaven, who will see this spectacle as even more reason to worship the “power and majesty” of God.
If the magnitude of suffering in hell wasn’t enough, Edwards now tells the congregation that they can also expect to be humiliated before the whole universe if they don’t come to Christ. This shows that Edwards imagines God not only as full of wrath, but also as vindictive and even cruel. To make matters worse, this humiliation would only be to aggrandize God himself, so it seems like Edwards’ God is also quite petty.
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4. This wrath is everlasting. Though experiencing even one moment of it would be horrible, the wrath endures for all eternity. A sinner in hell looks to their future of “merciless vengeance” in despair, as, no matter how long they spend being tortured, they have no respite to look forward to. The “state of a soul in such circumstances” is “inexpressible and inconceivable”—everything said about it on earth is only a “faint representation” of the power of God’s anger.
Throughout the sermon, Edwards has been asking the congregation to viscerally imagine their terrible future in hell. Now, he goes one step further, asking them to imagine that they’re in hell and looking to their future of eternal torture. This compounds the congregation’s hopelessness. Finally, Edwards reminds them once again that the true suffering they will face is so awful that it cannot be communicated in words.
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It’s a terrible state to be in danger of experiencing such wrath, and every person in the congregation who has not been born again is in exactly this danger, regardless of how moral and religious they think they are. In fact, Edwards claims, there is “reason to think” that many in the congregation will, indeed, go to hell, and those people may well have listened to this sermon without any disturbance, thinking that they were not implicated. Further, it’s likely that some people in the congregation might be in hell before this year is over—someone could even go before tomorrow morning. Those who won’t go to hell for a long time shouldn’t be comforted either, since, in the scope of eternity, they will still be in hell shortly.
This section of the sermon is meant as a final attempt to unsettle those in the congregation who might still be unmoved. By noting that those who will go to hell might listen to the sermon undisturbed, Edwards specifically addresses skeptical congregants, trying to bring them into the fold by framing their reaction to the sermon as evidence that they might go to hell. Here, Edwards is trying to systematically demolish every sense of security a person might have, including the idea that their life on earth could be long.
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While those already in hell cannot change their circumstances, the congregation has been given a remarkable opportunity to be saved, one that those in hell would envy. By coming to Christ for mercy, the congregation can join the saved in a “happy state, with their hearts filled” and their sins washed in the blood of Christ. How awful it would be to be left behind while others are rejoicing, or to be tortured while others sing, Edwards reminds the congregation.
After spending so long describing the abject horror of hell, Edwards turns to Christ to offer an alternative vision. Notably, Edwards focuses much more rhetorical energy on evoking the fear of hell than he does on enticing the congregation to salvation with imagery of paradise. His language in describing heaven is vague and even somewhat stale.
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Edwards begs those who are not yet born again to consider how much of God’s wrath they have accumulated and how horrible it would be to be passed over for salvation. He urges them to “wake thoroughly out of sleep,” for they cannot bear the full extent of God’s wrath. Edwards addresses young people, in particular, urging them to renounce “youthful vanities” lest they become children of the Devil while so many other good children are happy children of God.
Even though this is the closing argument of the sermon—the moment in which Edwards seems to have turned to enticing the congregation to Christ—he still returns to frightening imagery of God’s wrath. Perhaps Edwards dwells on this because he believes that fear of hell is more compelling to the congregation than desire for heaven.
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Emphasizing the importance of this opportunity to come to Christ, Edwards suggests that denying Christ today will result in a hardening of the heart that will make finding Christ more difficult later on. Thus, this day is one of both great promise and great danger. Edwards notes that God seems to be “hastily gathering” his people on earth, and that, as such, it’s likely that most people who will be saved will be saved within a short span of time. Sinners who fail to heed this warning will curse this day and curse the day they were born once they arrive in hell having witnessed and ignored this “season of the pouring out of God’s spirit.” One last time, Edwards implores the congregation to “now awake and fly from the wrath of God…lest you be consumed.”
Edwards closes his sermon with a passage that resembles high-pressure sales tactics. In order to make sure that the congregation converts to Christ before it’s too late, Edwards emphasizes the urgency of their predicament: if they delay coming to Christ, then they might miss the opportunity altogether. This is equivalent to a flashing sign that says, “sale ends today,” although, of course, the stakes that Edwards has presented are much higher. Predictably, instead of ending on an inspiring note, Edwards closes with a threat.
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