Is God primarily love? The disappearance of hell

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Recently, one of my church leaders read Jonathan Edwards' Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God at a Fourth of July service at my church. By way of introduction, it was pointed out that this used to be commonly read in schools as part of American History or English, but this is falling by the wayside. The sermon is certainly a sobering one, and one I think everyone should read, even if they disagree.

Around the same time, I had a discussion with someone who said essentially that Edwards was too "fire and brimstone". My response was to argue that, as far as I can tell, Edwards' theology is Biblical theology. Granted, in that sermon he uses some graphic imagery. But the Bible itself speaks seriously about sin and punishment, and, at times, uses very graphical language.

However, I have had a number of discussions with people who argue that, whenever we look at God's judgments, we have to remember that "God is primarily love". In other words, when we want to properly understand God, including his justice and wrath, we have to begin by understanding "God is love" and then apply that to understanding all his other attributes.

I think this is a fundamentally flawed approach. God isn't primarily anything. He is who he is, as in his famous declaration to Moses in Exodus 3. If we elevate any one of God's attributes to primacy, it will inevitably lead us astray. If we think God is primarily love, passages about God's judgment, anger, and wrath, will sound strange and foreign to us. But likewise, if we primarily think of him as angry and wrathful, we won't properly understand why God would send Jesus Christ in order to pay the price for our sins so that those who trust in him can be saved.

I think, however, that this is becoming increasingly common in modern Christianity. We don't study the Bible to see who God is, in all of his attributes. Rather, we focus on the parts that declare positive promises, or talk about God's love, because these parts are pleasant. And we gloss over Biblical passages talking about God's judgments, anger, or even hatred. I'm sure this is part of the reason Edwards' famous sermon is falling out of favor. It's no longer seen even as great literature, but as a harsh diatribe from a less enlightened and more brutal time -- a time to be forgotten. We make tolerance such a high ideal that we tend to think of God as tolerant, as well.

As a result of this overemphasis of some of God's attributes at the expense of others, we are at worst worshipping a false God, and at best have a very small view of what God has done in sending his Son.

I'm considering doing a series on some of these topics, perhaps blogging through some of Edwards' related sermons. But here, I wanted to point out this article on "Why you may not have heard about wrath, sin, and hell recently.". It's an old article from Christianity Today. I got the link from Pyromaniac. I don't necessarily agree with everything in it, but it does make a number of really good points. Check it out. Here are a couple teasers:

One of the most obvious features of new-model evangelicalism is an emphasis on recalling the warmth of a family relationship when thinking about God. It prefers to picture God as three persons held together in a relationship of love....

New-model evangelicals usually suggest that old model thinking came into the churches of Europe with the translation of the Bible into Latin. To the Roman mind, the justice of their law courts was the supreme glory of the empire. Theologians such as Tertullian and Augustine set the interpretation of the Bible in the context of a criminal found guilty by an impassive judge who pronounces the death sentence of hell. The Son of God was then viewed as the one who came in to pay the penalty so the criminal could go free. This forensic, law-court model was set out in its most rigorous substitutionary form in Cur Deus homo (Why did God become man?). Four hundred years later the Reformation would retain aspects of the law-court model of Augustine and Anselm.

Here's another good bit:

So wrath is more like a loving encouragement or rebuke to help us into (or keep us in) the fold. New-model evangelicals shrink from using the terrors of hell to scare people into making a decision. From the old-model point of view, that approach misses the fact that God can send us to hell, and that the only hope is to accept what Christ has done to save us from the damnation we deserve.

The author closes by pointing out that many Christians have probably moved in the direction of this new way of thinking without realizing it, and challenges us to ask whether this is Biblical. My hope, if I can find the time, is to do something along these lines in upcoming posts, probably partly by revisiting some of Edwards' sermons relating to these issues.

UPDATE: Part II of the series is here.

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9 Comments

I had to read it in my 10th grade American literature class, for what it's worth. That was only about 15 years ago. Of course, that was a private school, and the teacher was probably in his late 50s and therefore of an older generation than almost anyone teaching now.

George Marsden's biography of Edwards gives a good historical account of the context in which Edwards would deliver Sinners. According to Marsden, Edwards believed that the language used in a sermon "was not used just to create ideas of reality, as Locke might describe it, but preeminently to arouse affections that would excite vital knowledge among the hearers. ... His hearers needed to grasp truths with their affections, with their whole hearts, so that they would be moved by God's Spirit to act on what they now saw vividly to be true."

The popular misconception is that Edwards preached like this all the time, but Marsden points out that "Edwards had offered this one brief Gospel word, but indeed if one had taken this sermon as characteristic of his preaching, it would have been dreadfully out of balance. Edwards could take for granted, however, that a New England audience knew well that Gospel remedy. The problem was to get them to seek it."

So, yes, it was fire and brimstone, but it was that way for a purpose and it shouldn't be taken as an example of all the sermons that Edwards preached.

On the subject of love, even if God is "primarily love," we have to take into account that God loves in different ways. Here is a very good article by D.A. Carson on that subject.

Macht,

Very good point, and I totally agree with you. I like the quote about "it would have been dreadfully out of balance." It seems like one could say something similar about the reverse scenario, too: If a church never preaches about hell at judgment at all, it's dreadfully out of balance in the opposite direction.

It's interesting to note that at the time, Edwards was dealing in a significant part with people who were, in a sense, cultural "Christians". Many had grown up attending churches, etc., and often lived fairly moral lives -- but they had never really made Christianity their own, and he needed to bring them to realize the seriousness of their condition, and that nominal Christianity just won't do.

And as far as taking it an as typical of Edwards' sermons, I don't -- although he did preach a number of sermons on related topics. Edwards generally seems to have been fairly balanced in his preaching, which is a good thing.

And thanks for the Carson link. I particularly like this bit:
"In generations when almost everyone believed in the justice of God, people sometimes found it difficult to believe in the love of God. The preaching of the love of God came as wonderful good news. Nowadays if you tell people that God loves them, they are unlikely to be surprised. Of course God loves me; he's like that, isn't he? Besides, why shouldn't he love me? I'm kind of cute, or at least as nice as the next person. I'm okay, you're okay, and God loves you and me."

I think you have hit on something of real importance with this issue. When God's love is disconnected from the rest of His attributes, it becomes meaningless and hollow. A theological or biblical notion of love is not a fuzzy sense of "anything goes," but of attitudes and actions in keeping with the full-bodied character of God.

I look forward to reading more of your thoughts if and when you get around to them.

Yeah - Some comments:

1. Who can say that we will see the suffering of our loved ones and rejoice ? Is that so ? I'm not so sure about that ?

2. Too many people go around thinking that this is a mega-blockbuster revival sermon, and go around publicizing this sermon. Go to many a Xtn sites, and this will be the only Edwrds link that you will find. So people think that Hell is all that Edwards was about. Pretty sad.

3. I believe and could be wrong - but he gave this sermon on more than an occasion, and until the Great Awakening - it was a bomb - low impact sermon. So why did it do so well, when the time of the Great Awakening came ??? Why did it set of a revival then ?

Because Edwards did something the rest of us lazy christians would not do on the holiest of our days...

He fasted 3 days and 3 nights - and prayed nonstop. When people saw him praying - all they could see was Edwards saying 3 words "Give me New England !" "Give me New England !"

I wish people who publicize this sermon of Edwards would fast as such ... rather than just push this one sermon around thinking that it will do the revival trick.

God Bless,
Raj

Rajji,
On (1), it would be nice if you could point to the exact place that discusses this. I do recall reading a discussion of this, though. I can't get into a long discussion of it here, but let me ask this: Do you think that Christians in heaven will grieve because of the sufferings of the wicked? I think not, because we will see clearly who God is, and how wicked sin is, and rejoice when justice is done. I know this is a difficult idea, but I think the alternative would have some troubling implications. First, we wouldn't be completely happy in heaven, but rather grieving over the sufferings of those in hell. Second, we would think it better if God had saved everyone, yet he chooses not to. Why not? If this is something you're really interested in I can probably look up where I've read about it before and post a link, as it was a pretty thorough discussion.

On (2), I agree. I point it out, however, because it's something we don't hear about much anymore. From what I've read of Edwards, he seemed to have real balance in his preaching, which I think is important.

On (3), I think he gave it twice, and the first time it didn't have that much effect. I don't know about the fasting. But I'm skeptical about him praying only, "Give me New England!" over and over again. He seems to have prayed rather substantially, generally speaking, not just engaging in repetition.

(1) comes up in Revelation 19. Jonathan Edwards has been taken to task on this one particularly. The passage has the birds devouring the flesh of the wicked. This is referred to as the marriage supper of the Lamb. The rejoicing is at the vindication of God's people and justice to those who were opposing God.

I think that's right. It's interesting that even in this life, we can rejoice to some extent when justice is done.

Clarification: I mean justice particularly in the legal system.

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