My first introduction to the legendary Jonathan Edwards came, oddly enough, in the same class in 11th Grade where I first discovered that I loved writing fiction. I had not yet become a Christian, but I had become a "seeker." Our English teacher led us through a brief study of Edwards' infamous "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" sermon. Sadly, this lone sermon for the overwhelming majority of people forms the beginning and end of all they know about this man.
Some three decades later, I had the privilege of reading a wonderful biography of Edwards by a history professor from Notre Dame, George Marsden. It's called, simply: "Jonathan Edwards: A Life." I had already learned by then that there was much more to Jonathan Edwards than this sermon I'd read in 11th grade. I knew, for example, that he loved God with an intense passion and preached about the love of God even more than he did about the fires of hell.
But he most certainly did preach about the reality of hell, in a literary form and style that cast him, even centuries later, as the crown prince of fire and brimstone preachers. But I also learned something in Marsden's book about what motivated Edwards to reflect so often on this "hot topic."
It was love, not anger.
Some of you know, I retired at summer's end from being a pastor after 25 years. I did my fair share of funerals during that time, but rarely for someone who died suddenly in the prime of life. Almost all were for people who'd lived to a ripe old age. But in Edwards' time, he regularly presided over funerals for young men, women and children who died from any number of ailments that today they would have easily survived.
Young mothers died in childbirth. Children died when common colds became pneumonia. Teenagers died from the flu. Think about every one you know who got over something because they took an antibiotic. Now think of them dying instead.
These were the times and challenges Edwards' faced. He didn't feel he could ignore the unpopular subject of hell when so many people he loved faced the possibility of sudden death. You might say, his sermons were aimed at "scaring the hell" out of people, literally. His goal was that no one would face such a horrible fate, when infinite love and eternal paradise was available to them through Christ.
Edwards loved people. He loved his Savior even more. Consider something else Edwards has written, about the Excellencies of Christ. Besides his obvious love for God, he was one incredible writer:
"What is there that you can desire to find in a Savior that is not in Christ? What excellency is missing? What is there that is great or good; that is impressive or winning; what is there that is adorable or endearing; or what can you think of that would be more encouraging, which is not found in the person of Christ? Would you have your Savior to be great and honorable, because you are not willing to be indebted to a mean person? And is not Christ a person honorable enough to be worthy of your dependence; is he not a person high enough to be appointed to a work so honorable as your salvation?
"Would you not only have a Savior of high degree, but would you also have him—notwithstanding his exaltation and dignity—to be made also of low degree, that he might have experience with afflictions and trials, that he might learn by the things that he has suffered, to pity them who suffer and are tempted? And has not Christ been made low enough for you; and has he not suffered enough?
"Would you have your Savior to be one who is near enough to God, so that his ability to mediate might be ever with him? And can you desire him to be nearer to God than Christ is, who is his only-begotten Son, of the same essence with the Father? And would you not only have him near to God, but also near to you, that you may have free access to him? And would you have him nearer to you than to be in the same nature, united to you by a spiritual union, so close as to be fitly represented by the union of the wife to the husband, of the branch to the vine, of the body to the head; yea, so as to be one spirit? For so he will be united to you, if you accept him…
“What is there that is missing, or what would you add if you could, to make him more fit to be your Savior?"
As I reflect on Edward's question, here at the end, my answer is...absolutely nothing.