In accordance with traditional sermon structure, Jonathan Edwards opens “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” with the two Biblical readings on which the sermon is based. One passage, from the Book of Amos, is about God’s ability to find sinners and take them to hell no matter where they are. The other, from Deuteronomy, simply says, “Their foot shall slide in due time.”
Edwards begins the body of his sermon by contextualizing these quotations. Even though God was kind to the Israelites, they betrayed him, and therefore God brought vengeance upon them. The quote from Deuteronomy is God’s threat of vengeance, and Edwards proceeds to analyze the implications of this quote in depth. First, he notes that the quote implies that the Israelites always risked “destruction” (damnation), just as someone walking on a slippery surface is always in danger of falling. Second, he notes that a fall on a slippery surface is always sudden and unexpected—destruction might come to sinners at any time. Third, Edwards clarifies that when a person falls on a slippery surface, the fall is due only to their own weight (or, metaphorically, their sin)—they do not need to be pushed. Fourth, Edwards changes the metaphor from a person on a slippery surface to a person held by the hand of God on a slippery slope with a pit at the bottom. This metaphor shows that it’s God’s hand alone that keeps a sinner from hell, and when God lets go, the weight of their sins will drag them inevitably into hell.
From his close reading of the Deuteronomy quote, Edwards comes to one central conclusion: “There is nothing that keeps wicked men, at any one moment, out of hell, but the meer pleasure of God.” Edwards then proceeds to meditate on this conclusion with a list of ten observations.
1. Mankind cannot interfere with God’s power to cast them into hell whenever he pleases. While powerful men on earth, like princes, might have trouble subduing a rebellion, God has no such difficulty casting sinners into hell. Even if sinners band together against God, they are like “large quantities of dry stubble before devouring flames.”
2. Since sinners deserve to go to hell, “divine justice” is no reason for God to stay his hand. In fact, the congregation should understand “justice” to mean God sending them to their rightful place in hell.
3. Every “unconverted” sinner (those who have not come to Christ) is condemned to hell. Such sinners actually originally come from hell, which means that hell is, in every way, their rightful place.
4. Sinners shouldn’t take their continued presence on earth as evidence that God is less angry with them than he is with people already in hell. In fact, God is angrier with many people on earth—and, indeed, with many people in this congregation—than he is with people in hell.
5. The Devil—who stalks sinners like a hungry lion—is ready to seize his prey and bring them to hell whenever God wills it. In fact, sinners already belong to the Devil; scripture says he has their souls in his possession.
6. The souls of sinners contain the very “seeds of hell fire.” In other words, within sinful souls lie the conditions of hell itself, and the only thing keeping these souls from bursting into flame is God’s arbitrary will.
7. The congregation should not take false comfort from finding “no visible means of death at hand.” Sinners walk on a rotten floor over the pit of hell and the floor could collapse unexpectedly at any moment. Indeed, God has many ways of killing a person in the course of an ordinary day.
8. Even if a sinner goes to great pains to protect his or her life, this is no safeguard against the will of God. Wisdom, too, is useless, since wise people die unexpectedly just as often as fools.
9. Every person who hears of hell flatters themselves by believing that they will escape its torments through their cleverness or righteousness. However, most of those who are now in hell (which is most people who die) also believed this, so a sense of security should not be a comfort.
10. God has no obligation to keep anyone from hell. Instead, it is Christ who promised salvation and eternal life through the covenant of grace. Therefore, no matter how earnestly a sinner prays or worships, if he or she does not believe in Christ, then he or she will not be saved. So, sinners who don’t believe in Christ exist at the whim of a God who loathes them, and they have absolutely no security or means for obtaining salvation.
The following section of Edwards’ sermon, the “Application,” applies the lessons from Edwards’ readings of the Bible to the congregation’s lives. Edwards states outright that his purpose in giving the sermon is to bring the congregation to Christ. He then evokes God’s wrath through a series of frightening metaphors and descriptions. Edwards says that sins make people “heavy as lead” and without God’s hand they would descend straight into hell. He notes that God is the only force keeping the earth from spitting sinners out, since God’s creatures are meant to serve God, and sin is abhorrent to the natural order of the world—the sun does not “willingly” shine on sinners, nor does the air want to keep sinners alive. Edwards compares the wrath of God to dammed waters. Just as the pressure builds behind a dam, God’s wrath accumulates over a lifetime of sin. Once God withdraws his hand, the force of his wrath floods sinners into hell. Everyone in the congregation is subject to this—even those who have made earnest moral reforms and who keep strict religious practice—unless they have been born again into Christ. Indeed, many who have wound up in hell were surprised to find themselves there because they thought they had lived righteously.
Edwards compares God holding sinners over the pit of hell to a person holding a “spider, or some loathsome insect” over a fire. God “abhors” sinners, and the sinners have “dreadfully provoked” him. He loathes sinners ten thousand times as much as a person hates a venomous serpent, and there is no reason except God’s arbitrary will that the sinners in the congregation did not wake up this morning in hell, which is where they belong. To emphasize this danger, Edwards begins another numbered list of observations about God’s wrath.
1. The wrath of God is not like the wrath of people because God’s power is infinite. People fear the power of kings, but the most horrible tortures and punishments imposed by a king are nothing compared to the wrath of the infinite God.
2. God’s wrath is fierce. The Bible often explains God’s fierceness and fury, but even the most dreadful words are inadequate to communicating the truth of God’s wrath. Words also cannot communicate the “dreadful, inexpressible, inconceivable depth of misery” in which sinners find themselves in hell. Despite this, God will have no mercy on a sinner’s suffering, no matter how unbearable. The congregation could avoid this by coming to Christ today, but otherwise God will “laugh and mock” in response to the congregation’s cries and trample them until his clothes are stained with their blood.
3. Sometimes God needs to show his power and wrath, so he makes an example of sinners by torturing them for “the whole universe to behold.” Thus, if the congregation remains “in an unconverted state,” this could happen to them—they could suffer unimaginably while angels, Christ, and the “glorious inhabitants of heaven” look on.
4. God’s wrath is everlasting: there is no end to suffering in hell. Edwards urges the congregation to try to imagine being in hell—enduring torture that is, even for one moment, unendurable—and having to look forward to an eternity of this. This reality is inexpressible, Edwards admits, and his words can only give a “feeble, faint representation” of God’s anger.
However, many people in the congregation will have this very experience, and yet some of those people are doubtless flattering themselves that they will escape it because of their righteousness, even without accepting Christ. The congregation has an opportunity right now to avoid this terrible fate and obtain salvation, an opportunity that those in hell would giving anything to have. Christ is calling to sinners, and they are flocking to him, finding themselves “in a happy state” after he washes their sins with his blood. Edwards asks the congregation to imagine being sent to hell while others are rejoicing. Therefore, the hard-hearted congregants must “wake thoroughly out of sleep” and accept Christ. Edwards claims that God seems to be quickly gathering up his “elect” (those bound for heaven), and therefore most of those who will ever be saved will likely be saved very soon. Today is the congregation’s best chance to be saved—if they pass Christ over now, their hearts will continue to harden and it will be even more difficult to accept Christ in the future. If the congregation doesn’t get saved today, then they will regret it—they will even regret the day they were born. Therefore, today is the day to escape from damnation, “lest you be consumed.”