If you ever wonder how to get a bad rap with posterity, you need look no further than Jonathan Edwards, one of modernity’s favorite Puritan whipping boys. An 18th Century pastor, theologian, and missionary, Edwards has gained a negative reputation as the foremost of hellfire-and-brimstone preachers and the paragon of everything our culture finds faulty with religion. If it’s considered anathema today—like a repressive puritanical morality, an overemphasis on sin, guilt, and judgment, or a sadistic glorification of divine violence—it’s probably been pinned on Jonathan Edwards at some point.
SINNERS IN THE HANDS OF AN ANGRY GOD?
My first exposure to Edwards came in high school literature with the assigned reading of his famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Tackling the sermon as a read-aloud, our teacher prodded the class to preach with zeal: “Read it with passion! With fury in your eyes and fire in your belly!” His appeal to dramatic flair was mostly lost on a languid group of hormonal juniors, none of whom were eager to stand out amongst their peers. But the bias against Edwards—and the old-fashioned, bigoted, puritanical religion he represented—was clear.
In recent years, a popular backlash against “angry God” Christianity has risen not only from secular quarters but also from within the walls of the church. Consider a recent title from Brian Zahnd entitled Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, one in a long line of attempts to correct what is believed to be a backward and destructive theology and replace it with a non-violent, singularly loving, atonement-free gospel.*
For many of us, the appeal of a gratuitously loving God in the face of Edwards’ seemingly angry and bloodthirsty deity is irresistible. The angry, severe, cold god we grew up with has left us harboring neuroses too various to number. The god many of us have pictured from childhood was more like a domineering or demanding father than a gentle and loving friend. He reigned with an iron fist, rode on a heavenly cloud, and longed for a chance to exact vengeance on sinners and saints alike. This is a god whose stratospheric expectations left us cowering in fear, hopeless victims of his capricious anger and violent wrath…
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