Not far from where I live is the church that the Puritan divine Jonathan Edwards attended as a college student. Edwards is perhaps best known today for his fire-and-brimstone sermons, notably his masterpiece, "Sinners at the Hands of an Angry God." Such sermonizing was a popular form of entertainment in 18th-century New England. In those days, you couldn't just go to see a slasher movie if you were in a mood to be scared to death without leaving your seat. Terrorizing a congregation with the prospect of eternal damnation is now something of a lost art, at least outside the Bible Belt. But Edwards was a master of the genre. Without benefit of Hollywood special effects, he could conjure up such lurid images of God’s wrath that his parishioners would wail and weep and cling to church pillars for fear of being swallowed up in the fires of hell. "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," Edwards thundered. His words had such a powerful effect on listeners that at least one committed suicide. This was apparently all in a day's work for a Puritan firebrand who regarded threats of damnation as a means of grace -- but toward what end?
The Judeo-Christian God presides over a moral universe, and as time went on an elaborate system of rewards and punishments was developed to enforce discipline. At first, God administered his own rough justice, and there was no waiting around for a day of reckoning. Nor did God hand down indeterminate sentences that extended from this world into the next. The Old Testament made only a few passing references to a shadowy netherworld called Sheol where the righteous and unrighteous alike went when they died. Later writings introduced the idea that sinners were punished in a place called Gehenna, named after a site of human sacrifice among the pagans. Jesus’ references to an afterlife were also relatively few and typically came in response to queries from others. When he talked about the kingdom of God, he was referring to this world rather than the next. However, from St. Augustine onward, the church fathers painted a grim picture of hell’s torments as counterpoint to the faint promise of salvation for the righteous few who had atoned sufficiently for their sins.
Their depictions of eternal damnation were far more vivid and compelling than the alternative; indeed, one of the few concrete attractions offered in the heavenly realm was the opportunity to witness the sufferings of the damned (presumably from afar). Thomas Boston, an 18th-century Scottish preacher, opined that “the righteous company in heaven shall rejoice in the execution of God’s judgment, and shall sing while the smoke riseth up for ever.” The prospect of eternal punishment was regarded not only as an inducement to devout behavior but also as a practical deterrent to crime. Indeed, as the fires of hell receded in the popular imagination during the 18th and 19th centuries, the authorities in England vastly expanded the number of capital crimes as a bulwark against rampant lawlessness.
Jonathan Edwards clearly stands in the grand tradition of Christian teaching on the subject of hell and damnation. However, although he spearheaded one of the greatest revivals ever to sweep these shores, Edwards' own congregation eventually wearied of his incessant thundering from the pulpit. As accustomed as they were to cowering before their Maker, they decided that enough was enough and banished their pastor to a tiny congregation on the edge of the New England wilderness.
Oddly, Edwards had reported a very different experience of God as a young man. He recalled walking alone in his father’s pasture when he was first overcome by the “inward sweetness” of things. He later wrote, “The appearance of everything was altered; there seemed to be, as it were, a calm, sweet cast, or appearance of divine glory, in almost everything.” This man, who seemed to embody some elemental force of nature himself, confessed that he had once been terrified of thunderstorms. Yet even these yielded to the inward sweetness that now overcame him. His heart rejoiced as the heavens grew dark, and he sang out at the flash and rumble of God’s majesty.