Jonathan Edwards on Heaven & Hell
The Essential Edwards Collection
By Owen Strachan, Douglas Sweeney, Christopher Reese
Moody Publishers Copyright © 2010 Owen Strachan Douglas Sweeney
All rights reserved.
The Disappearance of the Afterlife
Knew where they went–
They went to God's Right Hand–
That Hand is amputated now
And God cannot be found–
The abdication of Belief
Makes the Behavior small–
Better an ignis fatuus
Than no illume at all–
Jonathan Edwards did not write these words. They were composed by Emily Dickinson. Dickinson, one of America's greatest poets of the nineteenth century, wrote the brief and untitled poem in a different cultural climate than Edwards's. The American colonies had become a nation. The Industrial Revolution had transformed daily life. Most pertinent to the poem, many pastors had embraced the popular academic spirit that effectively deemphasized the historic doctrines of orthodox Christianity.
The Christian faith as experienced by many church members had changed, too. Where Christians had once emphasized in the glories of heaven and the terrors of hell, many professing believers in Dickinson's era suffered an apparent "abdication of Belief." They no longer subscribed to the awesome truths of immortality. Instead, they busied themselves with the things of this world. Dickinson, though not an avid churchgoer herself, lamented this situation and the impoverished moral behavior it produced.
The same problem that Dickinson observed many years ago belongs to our age. Many believers and churches do not reflect deeply on the age to come. Evangelicalism as a whole seems to have shifted focus from the life to come to life in this world. This has the unfortunate consequence of diminishing the importance of ultimate realities.
The call to preach the need for salvation and the prospect of the afterlife proceeds from the Scripture. In one section from the book of Ezekiel, the Lord thunders to Ezekiel, His prophet, to do just this, warning him of the dire consequences of failure on this point:
SO YOU, SON OF MAN, I have made a watchman for the house of Israel. Whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, O wicked one, you shall surely die, and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from his way, that wicked person shall die in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked to turn from his way, and he does not turn from his way, that person shall die in his iniquity, but you will have delivered your soul. (Ezekiel 33:7—9)
Though the passage does not mention heaven and hell, it shows that the Lord holds His shepherds and prophets responsible for declaring His message of salvation. The prophets were divinely called to warn the people of God of the reality of judgment and the need to reconcile themselves to their Creator and Judge. The prophet did not choose whether or not to highlight these things. The people, for their part, were not free to pick and choose which parts of the prophet's message they liked best.
Much has changed since Ezekiel's day, when every person could not help but come face to face with both their mortality and the truth of the afterlife. We feel this shift keenly in the West, where various factors push against the biblical teaching on the afterlife. In the broader culture, hell, especially, is a relic of a severe past, an idea that few people seriously entertain. Heaven, on the other hand, retains popularity, though what heaven actually looks like in the minds of many has changed dramatically. In Christian circles, though many believers retain belief in heaven and hell, the practical reality is that this earth often has more significance for many of us than does the afterlife.
To begin to rectify this situation, we must first understand how we have arrived at this place. We will do so in this first chapter. We will briefly tour our cultural history, examining how belief in the afterlife has changed and decreased over the last few centuries. After we have traced the decline of belief in the afterlife, we will turn to the writing and thinking of Jonathan Edwards in pursuit of a biblical eschatological vision. The colonial New England pastor-theologian devoted a great deal of attention to the afterlife and penned numerous pieces that called for his audience to reckon with the prospect of eternity in either heaven or hell. These pieces, whether sermons to his congregation, theological treatises, or letters to his children, illustrate his convictions and will revive our own. Through study of them, we will see that Edwards wrote and preached on the need to prepare one's soul for death not because he was a killjoy, but because he loved his people deeply and wanted them to avoid wrath and taste eternal life.
A Brief Cultural History of Belief in the Afterlife
Our remarks on this point can only be brief as we provide a sketch of the decline of belief in hell in our society. As we will see, the story of widespread loss of faith in the afterlife parallels the larger story of cultural unbelief.
As noted in the introduction, the vast majority of people in the history of the world believed in a dualistic afterlife. For much of the last two millennia in the West, Catholicism and Protestantism have held sway over the minds and hearts of the common people. Though these two strands of Christianity have significant differences, each has traditionally taught that heaven and hell exist. Taking this teaching from the Bible, church leaders passed it on to their followers, who in turn accepted the teaching as truth. They had no perception as many of us do that they were choosing one worldview option among many. Rather, the biblical teaching as mediated by their church leaders was fact, and they were required by God to believe His Word.
Popular views of hell in the Middle Ages, for example, were often visceral and horrifying, far removed from our sanitized modern conceptions, as historian Piero Camporesi shows:
THE "SEPULCHRE OF HELL", "with its fetid corpses which were indissolubly linkend to hundreds of others", this "rubbish heap of rotting matter devours the dead without disintegrating them, disintegrates them without incinerating them, and incinerates them in everlasting death", worked like a peculiar self-feeding incinerator which simultaneously disintegrated and regenerated the rubbish which flowed from the rotten world, and paradoxically transformed the ephemeral into immortal, elevating the rejects and garbage into eternal, glorious trophies of divine justice. It was like a "rubbish heap filled with little worms" whose contents are continually regenerated and reintegrated in an incomprehensible cycle of sublimated destruction. (Camporesi, 55)
Pictures like this played in the minds of the masses for ages. Unlike our era, when many Christians shut hell from their minds, in previous days most people would have heard sermons illustrating the horrors of the realm of the damned.
Everything began to change in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, however. Some thinkers, following trends begun in the Renaissance, began to openly question the authority of the Bible, the existence of God, and the reality of heaven and hell. In Europe, especially in influential France, the number of "heretics" swelled as highly intelligent philosophers–called "philosophes"–launched attacks against the dogma of the Catholic Church. The Church, not used to having its teaching questioned so boldly in public, reacted strongly against the philosophes, which won the thinkers great approval from their peers. In time, through the power of the printing press, the Enlightenment's ideas spread from country to country and city to city.
As history shows, the Enlightenment accomplished nothing less than a sea change in the West. Coupled with factors like rising health standards and increased social prosperity due to the rise of markets, many common folk began to wonder whether Christianity was worth all the moral trouble, with all of its constraints and denunciations, and whether heaven and hell might be little more than an invention of the church. Camporesi vividly describes this shift:
TOGETHER WITH THE GROWING infrequency of famine and the extinction of that other divine punishment, the plague, the European desire for life, which was reflected in the demographic increase and the rebirth of Christian hope in the form of a less absolute and tyrannical, less cruel and severe justice, laid the foundations, under the long influence of rationalism, for deism, pantheism, and for an anti-dogmatic historical criticism and skepticism; it even led to the dismantling of the dark city of punishment and to the gradual emptying–through the filter of a deliberate mental reform–of the life–prison of the damned. (Camporesi, 103—4)
The teaching of the Enlightement philosophers caused many people to question beliefs long established as truth, even as changing living conditions allowed people to gradually liberate themselves from other-worldly teachings. Freshly emboldened, many people distanced themselves from Christianity and its view of the afterlife in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the academy, which grew especially strong in the nineteenth century, higher criticism of the Bible caught on, and soon scholars were debunking whole books of the sacred text. It became fashionable among leading thinkers to disbelieve the Bible. Yet, this was by no means the only religious trend of this period; Christian revivals broke out frequently and Baptists and Methodists surged in popularity in this age. Even in Europe, stories of the demise of Christianity were in places greatly exaggerated. Yet a shift had taken place, one that altered the West for good.
We also need to look specifically at what has happened in America in the last 200 years to erode belief in the Christian afterlife. Theologian Al Mohler notes that in the nineteenth century in America, "Deists and Unitarians had rejected the idea of God as judge. In certain circles, higher criticism had undermined confidence in the Bible as divine revelation, and churchmen increasingly treated hell as a metaphor" (Hell Under Fire, 24—25). A new wing of Christianity rose to prominence in America in this time. Liberal Christianity explicitly retained certain elements of Christian teaching while rejecting others, including belief in an errorless Scripture, a wrathful God, a substitute sacrifice paying the blood penalty for sin, and hell. These views spread from New England–once the bastion of biblical Christianity in America–to various corners of the country, including many cities and centers of academic life.
The seed of doubt planted in the nineteenth century yielded a forest of skepticism in the twentieth. Mohler weighs in incisively:
THEOLOGICALLY, THE CENTURY that began in comfortable Victorian eloquence quickly became fertile ground for nihilism and angst. What World War I did not destroy, World War II took by assault and atrocity. The battlefields of Verdun and Ypres gave way to the ovens of Dachau and Auschwitz as symbols of the century.
At the same time, the technological revolutions of the century extended the worldview of scientific naturalism throughout much of the culture of the West, especially among elites. The result was a complete revolution in the place of religion in general, and Christianity in particular, in the public space. Ideological and symbolic secularization became the norm in Western societies with advanced technologies and ever-increasing levels of economic wealth. Both heaven and hell took on an essentially this-worldly character. (Hell Under Fire, 26)
The specter of secularism assaulted Christianity on numerous fronts, as the above makes clear. The great wars of the first part of the twentieth century swept away the tenuous Christian commitment of many Europeans and Americans. Weakened Christianity, Christianity without an omnipotent and all-wise God, a glorious Savior laying His life down to save His people, and eternal life and death, proved no match for the "ovens of Dachau and Auschwitz." Horror at the scope and spectacle of human suffering overwhelmed loosely held religious commitment.
With little connection to the rock-solid biblical foundation that nurtures the soul and buttresses the mind, modern man searched for a salve, a worldview that could give solace in the midst of mass destruction. His quest led him to various outlets. He found some relief in technology and the promise of scientific discovery. He nursed his spiritual wounds in the burgeoning psychological movement. He gave himself over to nihilism. He spent himself in hedonistic excess. In each of these outlets, he embraced a world-centered ideology and lost sight of the wonder of heaven and the horror of hell. Man, a spiritual creature bearing the imprint of eternity, morphed into a soulless being with no attachment to a concrete afterlife.
The Christian faith has suffered in the wake of these developments. Many Christian leaders have allowed the major cultural trends to shape the way they think about and live the Christian faith. Mohler suggests that in our day:
SIN HAS BEEN REDEFINED as a lack of self-esteem rather than as an insult to the glory of God. Salvation has been reconceived as liberation from oppression, internal or external. The gospel becomes a means of release from bondage to bad habits rather than rescue from a sentence of eternity in hell. (Hell Under Fire, 40)
Historian D. P. Walker concurs in his treatment of the modern view of hell:
ETERNAL TORMENT IS NOWADAYS an unpopular doctrine among most kinds of Christians; the God of love has nearly driven out the God of vengeance; vindictive justice has had to take refuge among the advocates of hanging; and it is no longer considered respectable to enjoy the infliction of even the justest punishment. (Walker, 262)
Philosopher A. J. Conyers points out that heaven is also out of vogue today:
WE LIVE IN A WORLD no longer under heaven. At least in most people's minds and imaginations that vision of reality has become little more than a caricature, conjuring up the saints and angels of baroque frescoes. And in the church only a hint remains of the power it once exercised in the hearts of believers. (Conyers, 11)
The Christian church is losing its grasp on heaven and hell. As is clear from this testimony, when set against our fast-paced, ever-changing, self-serving world, the afterlife–seemingly so vague and far off–struggles to hold our attention.
What Moderns Believe about the Afterlife
Many who do believe in Christianity have modernized it. We have made our faith about fulfillment and achievement, sentimentalized love, and earthly progress. We have adopted the consumerist mind-set endemic to the West and have substituted the pursuit of plenty for the pursuit of piety. David Wells suggests:
THIS EXPERIENCE OF ABUNDANCE which is the result of both extraordinary ingenuity and untamed desire is a telltale sign that we have moved from a traditional society to one that is modern, from a time when God and the supernatural were "natural" parts of life, to one in which God is now alienated and dislocated from our modernized world. In traditional societies, what one could legitimately have wanted was limited. It was, of course, limited because people lived with only a few choices and little knowledge of life other than the life they lived; their vision of life had not been invaded, as ours is, by pictures of beguiling Caribbean shorelines, sleek luxury under the Lexus insignia, timeshares in fabulous places, or exotic perfumes sure to stir hidden passions. (Wells, 42)
Wells's analysis brings us back to where we started: preference. We modern folk live with a mind-boggling array of choices that our ancestors never knew. The family's in Dallas, but do we prefer the weather in Denver? Our parents ran a drug store, but would we prefer dentistry? Should we have kids now, or delay five or six years? Would we like to reinvent our bodies? If so, what would we like to change–a new nose? Different eyelids? Fuller, thicker lips? In these and countless other ways–many of them neutral, a good number of them acceptable, and some of them downright harmful–we encounter the category of choice, never realizing how differently we act and think from our forebears.
When it comes to choices about the afterlife, Americans exercise their "right" with aplomb. A recent Barna poll probing belief in heaven and hell discovered the following results:
IN ALL, 76% BELIEVE that Heaven exists, while nearly the same proportion said that there is such a thing as Hell (71%). Respondents were given various descriptions of Heaven and asked to choose the statement that best fits their belief about Heaven. Those who believe in Heaven were divided between describing Heaven as "a state of eternal existence in God's presence" (46%) and those who said it is "an actual place of rest and reward where souls go after death" (30%). Other Americans claimed that Heaven is just "symbolic" (14%), that there is no such thing as life after death (5%), or that they are not sure (5%).
While there is no dominant view of Hell, two particular perspectives are popular. Four out of ten adults believe that Hell is "a state of eternal separation from God's presence" (39%) and one-third (32%) says it is "an actual place of torment and suffering where people's souls go after death." A third perspective that one in eight adults believe is that "Hell is just a symbol of an unknown bad outcome after death" (13%). Other respondents were "not sure" or said they that they do not believe in an afterlife (16%). (Barna) (Continues...)
Excerpted from Jonathan Edwards on Heaven & Hell by Owen Strachan, Douglas Sweeney, Christopher Reese. Copyright © 2010 Owen Strachan Douglas Sweeney. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
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