In the summer of 1741, theologian Jonathan Edwards published a sermon that would go on to reshape American culture. Not only did “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” help fuel the religious revival known as The Great Awakening, but more than 250 years later, its impact is still reverberating in the Western Church.
There are multiple stories of Edwards delivering the sermon at churches throughout the American colonies, and afterward there being fingernail marks indented into the back of the wooden pews, left by terrified congregants.
As the title suggests, the sermon depicts an angry, vengeful deity: “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.”
Edwards warns that the only escape from this punishment is through Jesus’ work on the cross, though it ends on this note: “The wrath of Almighty God is now undoubtedly hanging over a great part of this congregation.”
A copy of the sermon once hung on the walls of the office of Brian Zahnd, a writer and the pastor of Word of Life Church in St. Joseph, Missouri. He had long been fascinated and compelled by Edwards’ startling prose. But something happened to Zahnd as he began to grow in his faith. He began to question the core idea of Edwards’ legendary work: Is God angry with creation? It’s a question he tackles in a new book.
We recently caught up with Zahnd to discuss how Edwards may have gotten it wrong—and what the implications are for Christians today still living in the shadow of the most dangerous sermon ever preached.
CAN YOU EXPLAIN THE IMPACT OF EDWARDS’ SERMON ON EARLY AMERICAN LIFE.
This is a Puritan sermon, and I don’t think there’s been any sermon in the history of America that has more shaped our collective religious imagination than “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”
America, because of how it came about, has a Puritan soul. Atheists are Puritans in America, by which I mean the God they don’t believe in is the Puritan God.
So the sermon, even if a person has never encountered it—though a lot of people have through school, where it’s given as a stock example of creative writing often times— they’ve been influenced by it.
It’s just part of the zeitgeist of the American religious imagination that there is a very angry God from which Jesus can possibly be the one that would save us.
You understand that some sort of legal agreement had been worked out between God and Jesus that involves us sinners, but does God really love us?
YOU ONCE OWNED A FRAMED COPY OF THE SERMON AND PERSONALLY REVERED IT. WHAT LED YOU TO LATER QUESTION THE CORE PREMISE OF IT.
Just staying on the journey with Jesus over a very long period of time and coming to the conviction that the clearest revelation of God we have is Jesus Christ Himself—that God is like Jesus. God has always been like Jesus. There’s never been a time when God wasn’t like Jesus.
So I began to see that God being portrayed as violent, vindictive and full of wrath seemed to be incompatible with the person of Jesus Christ.
I understand that if you want to paint God as angry, violent and retributive, you can use the Bible in such a way to do that. Those portraits are there, or at least you can cobble Bible verses together in a way to create that portrait, but you can do a lot of stuff like that with the Bible.
What the Bible does is point us to Jesus—that’s the thing I’d say the Bible does infallibly, it points us to Jesus. And do we see Jesus as one who would delight in dangling sinners over a fire as one dangles a spider, from Edwards’ phrase?
WHEN YOU HAD A TRANSITION OF THINKING, HOW DID IT PERSONALLY IMPACT YOU?
What it did was it made me more passionate for preaching the Good News than ever because it really is good news. It’s not cheap good news—it’s not saying there are no consequences to sin … but the truth is we’re more punished by our sin than for our sin.
It is this God of love supremely revealed in Jesus who wants to save us from that.
So without hesitation, I can preach the Gospel as good news, and not engage in this good-cop/bad-cop routine where God is dreadfully offended at you—hates you even—but Jesus gives you a way out. I don’t have to play that game anymore, and there’s a freedom in that. There’s light and no darkness at all in the way I can preach the Gospel now. I don’t need a stick to beat people with.
WHAT IS THE MODERN LEGACY OF THE SERMON?
It’s unfortunate that Jonathan Edwards has been so deeply connected with this one single sermon. Edwards has had other things to say that are wonderful and beautiful.
I will say this: I think America, in a unique sort of a way, has an obsession with retributive justice. That is justice as punishment, and it colors the way we even hear the word.
When the average American hears the word “justice,” I think very often—unless they’ve been taught otherwise—the first idea they have is punishment, and that’s unfortunate. Biblical justice is always restorative. The point is never simply punitive; the point is to set the world right.
There are three types of nations that actually practice capital punishment [today]: totalitarian states, Islamic states and the United States.
So who we’re in unison with is North Korea and Saudi Arabia in practicing capital punishment. Why is that so?
I think it’s because America has a rather peculiar obsession with retributive justice, and no doubt some of that is connected with our theology that goes back to colonial times, when it was Puritan revivalistic preaching, and some of that bitter fruit is still among us.
We seem to be suspicious as a nation: We’re suspicious of mercy. We’re suspicious of kindness as public policy. We don’t think that will work, and that seems to be very incompatible with what I see in Jesus Christ.
IF YOU WERE HYPOTHETICALLY TO SHOW THE SERMON TO SOMEONE IN THE EARLY CHURCH TWO THOUSAND YEARS AGO, WHAT DO YOU THINK THEIR RESPONSE WOULD BE?
I think, at least for the well-trained elders, bishops, pastors and leaders, they would have an instinct to recognize that as some form of paganism.
I think they would say, “I’m afraid you are confusing the God revealed in Jesus Christ with some of the pagan deities of the gentile world.” I think that would be their initial inclination—to be very suspicious of it, and say, “It seems that you’ve imported some pagan ideas in.”
BASICALLY YOU’RE SAYING, “GOD LOVES US,” AND NOT JUST “WE GET TO BE SAVED FROM HIS WRATH THROUGH JESUS.”
When Jesus prays, “Father, forgive them
for they know not what they do,” Jesus is not asking the Father to act contrary to who He is. He isn’t inviting the Father into a transactional agreement. Rather, He is revealing who the Father is.
I think of it this way: When the Son says, “Father forgive them,” the Father says, “Of course, Son, this is who we are. This is what we do.” And so the cross is where the sin of the world is absorbed by Christ and recycled into nothing but love and forgiveness.
What I’m saying is not terribly novel or unique. It’s going to strike people as such, because they’re unfamiliar with it. But I’m drawing heavily upon that which has always been the theology in the Orthodox East.
In the West, we have thought what we really need is a lawyer. “We have a legal problem, so what we need is a lawyer to get us out of a jam.” There are all these forensic and legal metaphors dealing with salvation. And in the East, the thought is more like, “We are sick, and we need a doctor.”
I’m always suspicious of legal metaphors, but thinking of Jesus as a kind of physician is very natural. What is Jesus doing all of the time? He’s healing people.
And so it isn’t that Jesus is saving us, rather Jesus is healing us and bringing us home again.