For some reason, the Church, at large, has come to assume that God’s justice is at odds with his other attributes; as though his justice “must be taken into consideration” whenever his grace, mercy, or love is mentioned. Since this concept is one of the main topics in my book- Hell in a Nutshell- The Mystery of His Will, I won’t say too much about it here.
According to George MacDonald, God’s attributes are not at odds with each other, but indistinguishable. In my book, I explain how the prevalent doctrine of postmortem judgement is not formed around God’s immutable and mutually inclusive attributes. Rather it reforms his attributes around its conception of justice.
Jonathan Edwards, the author of Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, formed his sermon around the prevalent perception of God’s justice. From that presupposition onward, he attempted to evangelize the uncommitted with the most unChrist-like tactic that I have ever seen. Today, Christians carry on with similar evangelistic schemes, but few have carried out their belief in the doctrine of Endless Conscious Torments (ECT) as far as Jonathan Edwards. Many who believe similarly admit that his sermon is difficult to read/hear, all the while affirming that he “told it like it is.”
Did he? If so, why do so few follow in his footsteps? I would wager that many who condone his tactics have not read his sermon in full, if at all. About a month ago, I finally decided to read his sermon. By the time I was finished, my stomach was in knots and my soul was in anguish; not because I feared for the eternal fate of anyone’s soul, but because of the horrendous image that he painted of the Lover of mine. Needless to say, I did not sleep well that night.
According to Edwards:
“There is nothing that keeps wicked men at any one moment out of hell, but the mere pleasure of God, I mean his sovereign pleasure, his arbitrary will, restrained by no obligation, hindered by no manner of difficulty, any more than if nothing else but God’s mere will had in the least degree, or in any respect whatsoever, any hand in the preservation of wicked men one moment.”
That may not seem like much on the surface, but as the sermon progresses he increasingly mentions the “arbitrary” will of God and associates it with his pleasure. Scripture plainly states that God does not find pleasure in the death of the wicked. Yet, Edwards’ sermon repeatedly suggests just the opposite- that God finds GREAT pleasure in their demise and even more pleasure in the following:
“The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten-thousand times more abominable in his eyes than the most venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince; and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment. It is to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to hell the last night; that you was suffered to awake again in this world, after you closed your eyes to sleep. And there is no other reason to be given why you have not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning, but that God’s hand has held you up. There is no other reason to be given why you have not gone to hell, since you have sat here in the house of God, provoking his pure eyes by your sinful wicked manner of attending his solemn worship. Yea, there is nothing else that is to be given as a reason why you do not this very moment drop down into hell.
Is that what God is like? Does he hate us that much? Is he sadistically holding the uncommitted over the fires of hell, with little care as to whether they “slip” from his grip? Edwards’ imagery was undoubtedly effective in scaring many of his congregants into saying the sinners prayer, but he scarred their souls in the process. Today, this tactic of old is much less effective, if not counterproductive. It is one of the primary reasons why many unbelievers reject the Faith. It was the final push for many Christians who were struggling for traction on the edge of apostasy. Nevertheless, “we must push on! The truth is the truth whether we like it or not!” Of course it is. Yet, a lie is also a lie, whether it is professed by a few or shouted from the rooftops by the masses.
Edwards was not totally wrong by suggesting that sinners are in the hands of an angry God. God hates sin, just as we should. However, he does not hate the sinner; at least, not totally. Does God expect us to live up to a higher standard than he chooses to live up to himself- to hate the sin, not the sinner? In one sense, I would affirm that God hates the sinner. He hates the sin in us and the person it has made us. He hates “the old man”, but he loves the person we are created to become. He loves everyone because we are not defined by our wrongs, but by that which he has created us to be, by the image in which we were created. If he didn’t create us with an intent on restoring the broken, that would mean that most people were created to be hated by him. God’s love for all is evident in Christ dying for all. His hatred will burn until each sinner is utterly destroyed. Only then can we be reformed/molded into the image of Christ.
We are sinners in the hands of an angry God. Yet, this anger is directed at that which is not of him. We are all created in his image. Therefore, there is something in each of us that is of God. The consuming fires of God will burn away all of that which is not acceptable to him or worthy of we who are his handiwork. Only then will the world be able to see him as he is and come to realize that which we have interpreted as anger was much more than brute justice. It was and is also his grace, mercy, and love; through and through. Sinners are in the hands of an angry God. Yet, he is much more than angry. His anger is holy and his judgments are good. They are to be desired more than gold, yea, more than much fine gold. It is sweeter than honey and its comb. For many, justice will be bittersweet when they come to realize that God’s ways are not just higher than ours, but much better . . . and anything but arbitrary.